America and Pakistan After Bin Laden: Still Frenemies

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With the fate of Osama bin Laden now firmly sealed, a crucial new question has emerged: Can America’s long-fraught relationship with the country in which the al-Qaeda leader was hiding survive much longer?

For nearly a decade, America has danced a strange tango with Pakistan, our nuclear-armed Islamic ally on Afghanistan’s eastern border. The two nations are like an unhappily married couple that, for practical and financial reasons, can’t quite bear to split up We have won Islamabad’s assistance in the fight against terrorism — with the help of about $1 billion per year in military aid — even as we routinely discovered its deceptions and alliances with radical Islamists, including Taliban fighters killing Americans in Afghanistan. This tense status quo, known as Pakistan’s “double game” in Washington shorthand, was illustrated in alarmingly stark terms by the first trove of diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks last year. And it continues despite increasingly public diplomatic spats over Pakistan’s commitment to the anti-terror partnership. Hillary Clinton even suggested last May that “somewhere in this government are people who know” where bin Laden was hiding.

The relationship had grown especially dodgy in the past several weeks. Pakistani officials have escalated their complaints about American drone strikes within their borders. A CIA contractor in the country on a murky mission was arrested (and eventually released) after shooting two Pakistani men, a case that riveted the nation for weeks. Just last week, Pakistan’s foreign minister reportedly urged Afghan president Hamid Karzai to scale back his ties with the United States and cut a deal with the Taliban under the auspices of Pakistan and its key patron (and U.S. rival) China.

And yet almost no one could have predicted this: The world’s most-wanted terrorist was found residing comfortably in a million-dollar compound near the Pakistani capital—not, as so many imagined, some miserable hidden cave in a wild and ungoverned area. That reality, and the myriad questions it raises—who in Pakistan knew about the compound? How could it have been built and operated near a military facility without the army’s knowledge?—is sending a shockwave through the fragile U.S.-Pakistan relationship. “This couldn’t have happened at a worse time,” says Daniel Markey, a former State Department South Asia specialist now with the Council on Foreign Relations. “In the near term, it looks pretty bad.”

Markey doubts that Pakistani government officials were aware of bin Laden’s specific location. He notes that Pakistan is teeming with suspicious characters and compounds, ones that even government officials would rather not ask questions about. But some members of Congress don’t buy it, and are demanding more details. “The ability of Osama bin Laden to live in a compound so close to Pakistan’s capital is astounding – and we need to understand who knew his location, when they knew it, and whether Pakistani officials were helping to protect him,” Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg fumed in a Monday statement, adding, “The United States provides billions of dollars in aid to Pakistan. Before we send another dime, we need to know whether Pakistan truly stands with us in the fight against terrorism.”

The Obama administration has been less than definitive on this core question. At a Monday afternoon press briefing, White House counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan called it “inconceivable” that bin Laden lacked a “support system in the country,” though Brennan refused to speculate about “what type of support he may have had on an official basis inside of Pakistan.” That hardly sounded like a not-guilty verdict. On the other hand, a senior defense department official told reporters that “we have no indications that the Pakistanis were aware that Osama bin Laden was at the compound in Abbottabad.”

Even if contrary evidence were to emerge indicating that Pakistan had provided bin Laden with safe harbor, would the U.S. actually cut Pakistan off? Maybe not. For the U.S., Pakistan is like a troublemaking dependent son whom the father refuses to cut off for fear his life will take an even darker turn. In this case, that turn could involve a closer alliance with militants and an end to the intelligence cooperation Pakistan provides for our campaign of aerial drone strikes on suspected terrorists within its borders. “We have to remember that we still have equities in Pakistan as it relates to our national security,” says House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers. Noting that perhaps 20 “incredibly bad” al-Qaeda leaders may still be based in the country, Rogers calls it “incredibly important for us to maintain a relationship, so that we can pursue those targets that we know are posing a threat to the United States.”

So while the idea of cutting off U.S. funds for Pakistan may be viscerally satisfying, it’s probably not realistic. Barack Obama has justified his troop increase in Afghanistan, after all, in large part on the importance of stabilizing its eastern neighbor: “The stakes are even higher within a nuclear-armed Pakistan,” he declared in 2009. That’s why Obama won Congressional passage of a huge increase in civilian aid to the country, and encouraged his senior intelligence and military officials to maintain close relations with their Pakistani counterparts.

And it’s why Obama officials took care today to praise Pakistan–whose leaders are angry and embarrassed that they had no advance notice about Sunday’s raid–for its support of other counter-terrorist missions. “Continued cooperation will be just as important in the days ahead,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said. “Indeed, we must take this opportunity to renew our resolve and redouble our efforts.” Whatever the real story behind bin Laden’s astonishing hideout, it seems that severing ties with our duplicitous ally is a risk America isn’t yet ready to take.

Post revised and updated Monday 11:30pm.