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05.09.11

Obama Puts the Squeeze on Pakistan's Zardari

President Obama's public commitment to finding out who was supporting Osama bin Laden in Pakistan puts Asif Ali Zardari in the impossible position of confronting either Washington or his country's military-intelligence empire—and leaves the future of the country's civilian government in question.

In the wake of Osama bin Laden’s discovery and death, President Obama has decided to raise the stakes in the United States’ dealings with Pakistan to an existential, make-or-break level. But it is unclear what Obama thinks the outcome will be, or whether his administration is prepared for the possible collapse of Pakistan’s democratically elected civilian government.

Obama committed the U.S. to two propositions on Sunday, in his 60 Minutes interview. The first: “We think there had to be some sort of support network for bin Laden inside of Pakistan.” He was careful to leave open the question of how high this support may have reached, saying: “We don’t know who or what that support network was. We don’t know whether there might have been some people inside of government, [or] people outside of government.” The second proposition: The U.S. is going to conduct its own investigation into who, if anyone, in Pakistan was aiding bin Laden. “That’s something that we have to investigate,” he said, adding: “…and more importantly, the Pakistani government has to investigate.”

The powerful Pakistani military, which includes the country’s spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, has reportedly launched its own investigation, which is unlikely ever to see the light of day, or be shared with the U.S. And Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani told parliament Monday that he was launching an investigation, which will be led by an army lieutenant general, into the failure of the government and intelligence agencies to detect bin Laden’s presence. “We are determined to get to the bottom of how, when, and why about Osama bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad,” he said.

Not surprisingly, Gilani defended the armed forces and rejected any notion that they had somehow colluded with al Qaeda’s leader. “It is disingenuous for anyone to blame Pakistan or state institutions of Pakistan, including the ISI and the armed forces, for being in cahoots with al Qaeda,” he said. “Allegations of complicity or incompetence are absurd.”

Tom Donilon, Obama’s national security adviser, was explicit about some of the demands the administration is making as the U.S. pursues its inquiry. He told CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday: “We have asked for access, including [to] three [of bin Laden’s] wives, who [the Pakistan authorities] now have in custody from the compound, as well as additional material that they took from the compound.”

Obama’s public promise of a U.S. inquiry could well pose an insoluble dilemma for President Zardari and his civilian government.

In going public, the White House is ratcheting up the pressure on Islamabad. Since the May 2 raid, senior U.S. officials have said on background that it is hard to believe bin Laden did not enjoy protection. Obama’s statement gives those backgrounders the most public possible imprimatur. It is now the official position of the U.S. government.

A week ago, Marc Grossman, Richard Holbrooke’s successor as special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, apparently made similar demands. But that was done in private. In a closed-door meeting in Islamabad with Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, Gilani, Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, and Lt. Gen. Ahmad Shuja Pasha, the head of the ISI, Grossman warned the Pakistan leadership that the U.S. Congress would demand a full accounting of who knew what about bin Laden’s sanctuary on Pakistani soil, U.S. officials said afterward.

Grossman, again according to U.S. officials, warned that the U.S. would have to conduct its own inquiry. Pakistani officials told The New York Times that Grossman went further, asking for the identities of some senior officials in the ISI. The U.S. has long suspected that the ISI has been providing sanctuary to, if not aiding, the Afghan Taliban leadership in Quetta, the Haqqani network in North Waziristan, and perhaps even al Qaeda. Grossman’s reported demand would open the way for the U.S. to trawl through the National Security Agency’s vast archive of intercepted phone calls in Pakistan to see who in ISI was calling whom. U.S. officials declined to confirm that Pakistani account, saying merely that Grossman had been “very tough.”

Obama’s public commitment to a U.S. inquiry—in which, as Donilon amplified, Pakistan’s cooperation has been demanded—could well pose an insoluble dilemma for President Zardari and his civilian government. Since the raid, Kayani and Pasha, the ISI director, have sought to divert attention from all the uncomfortable questions the Navy SEALs’ operation raised by inveighing against the raid’s infringement of Pakistan’s sovereignty and warning of consequences if it happened again. But they pointedly have sidestepped their own culpability in being caught totally unaware by the raid, which completely evaded Pakistani detection. That approach may have diverted some domestic critics. But it will make allowing what Obama is now publicly demanding even tougher for Zardari, who has limited, if any, leverage.

So what can Pakistan do? Pakistani media outlets are reporting that Zardari, Gilani, and Kayani held a tense meeting over the weekend. Gilani’s office said afterward that the leaders had “comprehensively reviewed the situation in the perspective of Pakistan’s national security and foreign policy.” It added that “the sole criteria for formulating our stance is the safeguarding of Pakistan’s supreme national interests, by all means, by all state institutions.” Pakistan clearly seems to be circling the wagons in an effort to stand firm against U.S. demands.

Pasha did not attend the weekend meeting. An ISI source said he may be traveling in the Gulf. The Daily Beast and the Pakistani press have reported that Pasha is under pressure to resign, both from within and outside the military. (A senior Pakistan official told The Daily Beast that Pasha has offered his resignation, but that it has been rejected, at least for now.)

Gilani did announce a parliamentary inquiry on Monday into the U.S. raid and bin Laden’s embarrassing presence some 80 miles north of the capital. But there are signs that the army and ISI may have decided to offer only limited cooperation to any investigation, and certainly one by a toothless parliamentary committee. The military may even be forming a united front against Zardari. Kayani reportedly gave a weekend briefing to Pakistani journalists at which he claimed that Zardari had shown no interest in the military’s counterterrorism efforts, saying, according to one account, that Zardari had asked for no briefing “even once during the last three years.”

It is unclear how this contempt for Zardari could possibly help either the military or its offspring, the ISI. Nor will it answer the hard questions the U.S. is posing, particularly as Kayani must realize that U.S. intelligence is furiously combing the trove of material removed from bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound, which may include a smoking gun incriminating Pakistani officials. But the military’s comments may be perhaps the first ominous rumbling of a showdown between Pakistan’s civilian government and the all-powerful military.

Obama, arguably, had little choice but to up the ante as he did. Congressional reactions to the revelation of bin Laden’s whereabouts have been slow to come. But the pressure is starting to mount. Rep. Howard Berman, ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, sent a polite but tough letter Thursday to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Berman was, with Sens. John Kerry and Richard Lugar, an architect of Congress’ agreement in October 2009 to triple U.S. non-military aid to Pakistan. Now, Berman’s letter points out, this aid “requires the Secretary of State to certify that the Government of Pakistan has demonstrated a sustained commitment to and is making significant efforts towards combating terrorist groups including…Al Qaeda…”

Both the administration and Congress are acutely aware of the need to keep Pakistan as an ally, even if it is a difficult, even double-dealing, one. But Obama’s comments potentially pose for Zardari the choice of confronting either Washington or Pakistan’s military-intelligence empire. Whether Zardari, or any civilian government, can navigate that dilemma is uncertain. Obama must certainly have realized that before he said what he did. His comments were not off the cuff. The question his statement inevitably raises is whether the administration any longer believes that a civilian government in Pakistan is necessary to the “strategic partnership” both nations claim to want.

John Barry joined Newsweek's Washington bureau as national security correspondent in July 1985. He has reported extensively on American intervention in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Haiti, Bosnia, Iraq and Somalia and efforts for peace in the Middle East. In 2002, he co-wrote "The War Crimes of Afghanistan" (8/26/02 cover) which won a National Headliner Award. He won the 1993 Investigative Reporters & Editors Gold Medal for his investigation of the shooting down of an Iranian airliner by the USS Vincennes, as well as a 1983 British Press Award—the British equivalent of a Pulitzer—for his reconstruction of the US-Soviet negotiations to ban intermediate range nuclear missiles in Europe.