Our Pakistan Problem Manages to Get Worse
“Pakistan,” a very senior U.S. military officer recently mused, “is the problem from hell. Always has been. Always will be.” And he said that before the U.S. dispatched Navy SEALs deep into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden. In the wake of the raid, tensions between the U.S. and Pakistan have spiraled—and are about to heighten further.
The discovery that bin Laden’s long-time refuge, from which he appears to have been able to play a continuing role in al Qaeda, was only a short walk from Pakistan’s West Point is reason enough for a crisis in U.S./Pakistan relations. But Chicago’s federal courthouse sees on Monday the start of a terrorism trial at which the main witness, a U.S. citizen named David Headley, is expected to describe multiple training spells in terrorist camps run by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, and to detail the involvement of ISI officers in the planning of the terrorist assault on Mumbai in November 2008, in which some 170 people died, among them six Americans. Pakistan has already denied everything Headley will say. But what was already a U.S./Pakistan crisis will become a U.S./Pakistan/India crisis.
It comes as no surprise, then, that, as the Washington Post reports, senior administration officials are locked in a debate about the future of U.S. relations with Pakistan. Here, from two sources knowledgeable about the debate, are some of the issues President Obama and his senior advisers are grappling with:
• Does the U.S. need to do anything? Or anything rapidly?
U.S. officials have long assumed that Pakistan’s leaders—or at least its military and intelligence service—were playing a double game: With one hand, assisting U.S. efforts to kill or capture some terrorists, and targeting Predator strikes against some of the insurgent groups based inside Pakistan. And with another hand, protecting Afghan groups and continuing to plot against India. (Defense Secretary Robert Gates—his no-illusions views of what states will do educated by years at the CIA—has publicly lain this out, adding that it was to be expected, given Pakistan’s view of its strategic situation.)
The discovery of bin Laden’s hideout perhaps alters U.S. judgments about where Pakistan has been striking this balance between cooperation and hostility. But, arguably, it changes nothing fundamental in U.S. perceptions of the uneasy relationship.
We’re trapped in a classic bad marriage. Can’t live with them. Can’t live without them.”
A chief of French intelligence back in the Cold War once famously remarked that, in running all double agents, the operative question was: “Are you getting the fat or the lean?”—the good stuff or chicken feed. Since 9/11 the U.S. judgment has been that, on the whole, it’s been getting the “lean” from Pakistan. Pakistan allows passage of the endless convoys ferrying critical U.S. war supplies from Karachi up into Afghanistan. Covert Pakistan cooperation—including a forward base for Predators—has been essential in killing hundreds of insurgents, and in capturing some of bin Laden’s key aides. (Pakistan is correct to say that information from at least two of these provided early leads to bin Laden’s whereabouts.) It is also true that Pakistan’s military has taken vastly more casualties in its own assaults on the tribal areas than coalition forces have suffered in Afghanistan. So, as that very senior U.S. officer summed up the U.S./Pakistan relationship: “We’re trapped in a classic bad marriage. Can’t live with them. Can’t live without them.”
• Will Pakistan continue its cooperation with the U.S.?
A mid-level administration official observed last week: “Pakistan has the initiative. What happens now is up to them.” In tense debates before Obama authorized the SEALs raid, his officials tried to foresee what the reactions would be in Pakistan. Popular outrage was taken for granted. The real question was: how would Pakistan’s political and military/intelligence elite react? Sources say that a majority view among Obama’s advisers was that, after a few weeks of uproar, Pakistan’s power group would revert to its established course: public protests as necessary, but continuing covert cooperation. Most of Obama’s advisers reportedly thought a total breakdown of U.S./Pakistan relations was unlikely.
So far, this judgment seems to have been borne out. Friday’s session of Pakistan’s parliament generated the expected denunciations of the raid and U.S. policies in general—but also, significantly, a call for a parliamentary inquiry into the failures of the military and ISI to prevent the SEALs raid. That demand will almost certainly go nowhere; but optimists in the Obama administration view it as a first step in what they hope is a nascent effort to bring the Pakistan Army and ISI under some semblance of civilian oversight. That slim hope seems misplaced: At the end of the parliamentary debate, the house closed ranks behind the powerful military.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has been given access to bin Laden’s wives—though only under the watch of Pakistani minders. Sources say the wives had evidently been coached to say nothing, so the sessions yielded little. Still, providing access is seen as a conciliatory gesture. Quiet discussions also are under way about returning the wreckage of the SEAL helicopter that crashed during the raid. It’s assumed that Pakistani engineers have been combing through the debris; but so far foreign experts—the U.S. has in mind the Chinese, especially—appear not to have been given direct access. Finally, the Pakistan military has been silent on details it must know about the U.S. raid. How back-up forces—in Chinooks and other Black Hawks—were deployed during the raid remains secret. Embarrassment may explain Pakistani silence on this and other details. But the silence is being taken as another conciliatory gesture.
The critical unknown, sources say, remains the attitude of Army chief of staff, Gen. Ashraf Kayani. The boss of ISI, Lt. Gen. Shuja Pasha wants to quit, according to a senior Pakistani official. Pasha apparently has offered his resignation three times since the raid—twice in closed-door leadership sessions, and then during the heated parliamentary discussion. It’s been refused each time, even by the critical parliament in its marathon session. But administration officials see Kayani as the driving figure behind Pakistan’s long-term response to the crisis. Kayani sat in basilisk silence during the parliamentary session. What one U.S. official called “a problem we had not adequately foreseen” is that Kayani apparently has taken the U.S. decision not to inform him about the SEALs raid as an unforgivable slight on his personal honor. It calls into question, he apparently thinks, his whole relationship—and by extension, Pakistan’s—with the administration. Kayani has to be mollified somehow. Sen. John Kerry’s mission to Pakistan this weekend—at President Obama’s request—has that as one of its objectives.
• What about bin Laden’s archives scooped up by the CIA operatives who accompanied the SEALs on the raid?
It will take weeks or more before the U.S. has really figured out what these reveal. Meanwhile, the trove is seen as a sword poised in classic Damoclean fashion over the heads of Pakistan’s leadership. “They have to be concerned what we will learn about Pakistan’s relationship with al Qaeda and perhaps other terrorist groups,” said one U.S. official. So the trove is a lever to, at the least, nudge Pakistan’s continued cooperation. But what if the trove does reveal Pakistani complicity at high levels in bin Laden’s operations? How should the Administration handle that?
Administration officials see an even trickier problem looming. Say the trove gives good leads to the whereabouts of bin Laden’s number two, Ayman al Zawahiri. The U.S. assumes Zawahiri, too, has been living in Pakistan—at least until he learned of bin Laden’s death. Should the administration share this information with the Pakistanis and request their cooperation? Or should the CIA pursue the trail unilaterally, and pave the way for another raid?
• What, finally, of Mullah Omar and the rest of the Taliban leadership broadly called the Quetta Shura?
The CIA, sources say, has some confidence it knows the whereabouts in Pakistan of Omar and his colleagues. But they’ve been outside the geographic limits of Predator strikes agreed with Pakistan. Should they remain untouchable? President Obama is eager to announce this summer a major drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. His military commanders’ advice is likely to be that a sizable pullout is feasible—so long as the campaign is stepped up against the Taliban and associated groups in Pakistan.
If Pakistan’s evolving reactions to the SEALs raid over the next few weeks indicate that meaningful cooperation with the U.S. is now at an end, there are those within the administration who are willing to contemplate unilateral action against Mullah Omar and the Quetta Shura. Whatever the consequences for U.S./Pakistan relations. That’s how serious the crisis in relations with Pakistan has become.
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.