After bin Laden: A Chance to Review the U.S.-Pakistan Relationship—without Distractions
May 11, 2011
The temptation by the United States is to visit immediate consequences on Pakistan for the alliance breaches related to Osama bin Laden. As former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf concluded on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition last Friday, the entire episode exposes either complicity or incompetence by Pakistan’s military, especially its security forces. “I strongly believe the latter,” he said. “I cannot imagine the former.” Civilians like President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani may just have more vivid imaginations, but surely no one in the civilian government—political or civil service—has discarded the explanation of complicity or at least duplicity. If it was incompetence, the intelligence services, particularly the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), will not so easily dodge the obvious bullet: Not just what did they know, but what should they have known? Given the predominance of the military establishment over civilians, Pakistanis may not be as shocked or outraged as citizens of settled democracies that Zardari and Gillani may have been intentionally kept in the dark by, as they say in intelligence circles, “witting” military officers. But if (all but inconceivably) lower-ranked operatives knew about bin Laden yet excluded their military superiors—General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, chief of army staff, and Lieutenant General Ahmad Shuja Pasha, director general of the ISI—surely “heads will roll,” as Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, said Sunday on This Week with Christiane Amanpour. He was referring to the ignorance of Zardari and Gillani, perhaps wishful thinking, but a decapitation would be certain if the military command were deceived. Indeed, the particulars of bin Laden’s five-year residence in a very large house could hardly be more embarrassing for Pakistan’s intelligence services. As Musharraf noted, Abbottabad is not in the “lawless” Federally Administered Tribal Areas but a garrison town of military training and recruitment centers, just 35 miles from Islamabad and a few miles from the Pakistan Military Academy in which, as he noted, every general officer would have spent a few years. It is, moreover, a town that many well-placed Pakistanis use as a weekend or vacation retreat.
The Pakistan Army and a host of commentators have understandably tried to shift the discussion to the United States and its violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty. After all, as the White House has acknowledged, permission to send four helicopters from Afghanistan into Pakistan was neither sought nor given for what one former high U.S. government official has recently called an extra-judicial, extra-territorial assassination by the United States in Pakistan. So in addition to the domestic issues—What did the ISI know? What should it have known? Whom did they inform or fail to inform?—the events expose the deteriorated character of the Pakistan-U.S. military/intelligence relationship, what Musharraf called “absolute lack of trust and confidence in each other.” All of that is played against and in turn reinforces the abysmally low esteem in which the Pakistani public holds the United States. In that context, the military has available a very convenient scapegoat for its own failures or duplicity and a lot of takers for shifting the debate.
But the primary long-term interests of the United States remain in Pakistan’s security and stability, notwithstanding Pakistani behavior with respect to bin Laden. Over the long term, U.S. structural interests are not primarily in Afghanistan or even in al Qaeda. President Obama long ago announced a major U.S. troop reduction by 2014, perhaps sooner, and there is a growing view in both political parties that Afghanistan is simply not worth the effort, militarily or financially. So a reduction in U.S. military and financial commitments is almost certain. And al Qaeda, the ostensible reason for the U.S. effort in Afghanistan, may now become more of a spent force than it has been, even as threats of terrorism from a much more diversified and dispersed set of actors increase. In an important way, the removal or attenuation of both issues, Afghanistan and al Qaeda, would liberate the relation between Pakistan and the United States from these two distractions.
It would free the United States from its dependence on Pakistan for a supply chain to Afghanistan. The northern distribution network is designed to reduce that dependence. A dramatic reduction in U.S. commitments to Afghanistan would minimize it. That would, in turn, reduce Pakistan’s leverage in discussions about the relationship. More importantly, it should, but unfortunately may not, change Pakistan’s calculations and understanding about the relationship. It would allow both countries to concentrate on the essentials, which are the security and stability of Pakistan, independent of Afghanistan. The U.S. argument that domestic terrorism, not India, is the primary threat to Pakistan’s security will not so easily be dismissed by Pakistanis as a convenient rationale for enlisting Pakistan on the U.S. side in Afghanistan, in effect turning Pakistan into a mere U.S. tool against Afghanistan-oriented terrorists operating within Pakistan. Unfortunately, given the lack of trust, the low esteem, and the history of the 1980s, Pakistanis will almost certainly stick with their denial even after a U.S. drawdown in or even exit from Afghanistan. They point constantly to the U.S. “abandonment” of Pakistan after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, in particular the shameful treatment it endured relating to the sale of F16s, which it paid for but never received. They will point also to the improved relationship between India and the United States. Unfortunately, conspiratorial thinking is not just a national pastime, it has become almost a part of Pakistan’s national character, directed first and foremost against foreign forces, especially India and the United States, but also against other Pakistanis.
Nevertheless, the death of bin Laden and the potential reduction in the U.S. presence in Afghanistan should free both sides to forge a renewed bilateral relationship with its own dynamics, independent of other factors. It is widely agreed in U.S. policy circles that, as Speaker John Boehner put it in the Washington Post last week, “this is no time to back away from Pakistan,” no matter what the disappointments the bin Laden event exposed about our antiterrorism partnership. But it is a time for both sides to reevaluate forthrightly and candidly what the larger relationship is about. What are our respective interests? What are the stakes? What price is each prepared to pay, and what can each side reasonably expect of the other in a long-term relationship? Under what conditions should the United States “stay” and at what price? For what purposes? With what stakes and what prospects? And on the Pakistani side, a similar set of questions: What are its real security interests? What can it expect from the United States? At what price? With what realistic expectations? Shorn of the burdens of al Qaeda’s presence (or at least that of its primary leader) and ultimately shorn of the burden of the huge U.S. exposure in Afghanistan, perhaps a more mature relationship based on our mutual long-term bilateral interests can be forged.
Gerald F. Hyman is president of the Hills Program on Governance at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.