The U.S. and Pakistan: Can This Marriage Be Saved?

Bin Laden’s widow’s testimony raises troubling questions – but the relationship had already hit a new low. Ron Moreau reports.

In my 10-plus years in Pakistan, I’ve always been nonplussed by Washington’s patience with – indeed, its indulgence of – the Pakistani government. America has spent tens of billions of dollars in a basically futile effort to coax Islamabad into clamping down on the Taliban. The sanctuaries that Pakistan provides to them are largely responsible for the insurgency’s resilience and ability to continue killing U.S. and Coalition soldiers. Without the cross-border havens where the guerrillas plan their attacks, recruit, train, raise funds, rest, reequip and receive medical attention, the Taliban would be a far less lethal, perhaps even containable, force.

The latest evidence of Pakistan’s untrustworthiness was given by Osama bin Laden’s youngest wife. According to the official summary of her interrogation by Pakistani military and civilian investigators, the terrorist kingpin and his growing family lived a cushy, middle-class existence in a series of well-appointed houses from 2002 until his death last May. How could an Arab stranger, standing roughly 6-foot-5 and speaking neither Urdu or Pashtu, have moved undetected through the country’s ubiquitous police and military checkpoints? How were he and his wives able to escape the notice of their neighbors for so many years? And with a $25 million price on his head, no less. “People generally know who is living next door,” says retired Lt. Gen. Talat Masood. “Neighbors must have asked questions. The local police as well.”

From the moment of bin Laden’s death last May, the Pakistani Army’s top brass and the ISI have said loudly and repeatedly that they had no knowledge of bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad or anywhere else in Pakistan. Personally, I still find it hard to believe that the military and its intelligence services could be so incompetent. Nevertheless, some of my best sources accept Pakistan’s claim of ignorance. “The leadership was badly embarrassed and swears to me that they didn’t know,” says Masood. “They say that since there were no foreigners living [openly] in Abbottabad, a quiet military town with no insurgency, they didn’t pay much attention to the place and only had a small detachment of six or so [intelligence operatives] stationed there.”

Whether or not you buy that argument, it’s even harder for the men in charge to explain away their blatant support for the Taliban. Not that they’re solely to blame for America’s failures in Afghanistan. In fact, U.S. strategy was flawed from the beginning. A decade ago, Afghans were exhausted by years of war and misrule. After the Taliban’s fall, the people were wishing desperately for peace, reconstruction, and economic growth. And they would have stood a good chance of getting their wish if only Washington had deployed enough troops to take charge, disarm the country’s warlords, and begin training a credible new Afghan security force. In that case, it’s very likely that the Americans could have stabilized the place and gone home long ago.

Instead, there were far too few U.S. troops for the job – and worse, security had to be outsourced to Northern Alliance militia leaders. Many of those commanders were the very same warlords whose brutality, corruption, and abuse of power had led the Taliban to take up arms against them in the first place, back in the 1990s. That uprising had been enthusiastically supported by Pakistan’s military and intelligence chiefs, who believed that the northern warlords had help from Pakistan’s mortal enemy, India. Seeing the warlords’ return to power, the routed Taliban began to regroup against them in 2005. And then rather than suppressing the insurgency, America actually fed it by propping up an ineffective, corrupt, and unpopular government in Kabul, according to Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington at the time of 9/11. “U.S. strategy was flawed and led to Pashtun alienation, which then turned into a Taliban resurgence,” she says. By the time America sent in a full contingent of troops, the Taliban were back in business. The U.S. surge had come seven or eight years too late.

Still, America has won a victory of sorts: bin Laden and his forces have effectively been eradicated from Afghanistan. Pakistan’s security forces may have turned a blind eye to the Taliban’s cross-border attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan, but in joint operations with the CIA and FBI, they cracked down hard on foreign jihadists in Pakistan. In fact, most of the big fish who have been captured alive were nabbed in Pakistani population centers. The avowed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, was arrested in 2003 in the Pakistani Army’s garrison town of Rawalpindi. Abu Zubaydah, the first senior al Qaeda operative arrested in Pakistan, was picked up in 2002 in the city of Faisalabad. Another accused 9/11 plotter, Ramzi bin al-Shibh was arrested in Karachi that same year. Abu Faraj al-Libbi, the group’s alleged director of operations, was arrested in 2005 in the northwestern town of Mardan as he tried to flee, disguised as a woman.

Nevertheless, ugly suspicions persist about possible Pakistani collusion with al Qaeda. The terse report of Amal Ahmed Abdul Fateh’s interrogation -- nine short paragraphs – doesn’t answer the big question: how deep did her husband’s support network go? There’s hardly a word about who facilitated bin Laden’s travel, protection, the setting up of his residences, and his care and feeding. His widow mentioned that she was assisted in Karachi by her stepson Saad bin Laden and by “some Pakistani family.” Later she said the whole family was aided by two brothers, Ibrahim and Abrar, presumably a pair of Pashtuns from Swat who were bin Laden’s prime fixers. The brothers’ families “were actually the hosts of OBL family and everything was arranged by them,” according to the report’s paraphrase of Fateh’s account.

Bin Laden’s support network must have gone far beyond those two brothers, but defense analyst Rifaat Hussain says he has no reason to doubt Fateh’s account, as far as it goes. “You have to take these revelations seriously,” he says. “I don’t think she’s making it up …. Women’s testimony in Pakistan is usually very credible. The authorities may torture men, but not women.” Nevertheless, Hussain says he doesn’t expect more details to be made public from Fateh’s testimony – or from that of bin Laden’s other two wives, if they ever agree to talk -- about who was guarding and sustaining bin Laden. “That’s something that no one will reveal,” he says. “It’s too sensitive, perhaps too explosive. The government will have to be careful as to how much they are going to reveal.”

Relations between Islamabad and Washington have turned downright nasty. They were bad even before the bin Laden raid, which Pakistanis regarded as an assault on their sovereignty, and they got even worse after last November’s U.S. air strikes that mistakenly killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at two border posts. “U.S.-Pakistani relations have always been like a yo-yo, going up and down, but this time it’s the lowest it has ever gone, and I don’t see it moving in a more positive direction in the near future,” says retired Maj. Gen. Mahmud Ali Durrani, a former ambassador to Washington. “The mistrust is equally deep on both sides. After Abbottabad, the mistrust in Washington skyrocketed. The U.S. is saying, ‘We can’t trust these Pakis, they are playing games’.”

All game-playing aside, the two countries have different objectives. Pakistan sees the Taliban as its only protection against India’s growing influence in Kabul. The Americans, having lost nearly 2,000 soldiers and spent hundreds of billions of dollars in Afghanistan, are looking for an honorable exit, one that won’t set off another all-out civil war. The Afghans themselves both want and fear a U.S. pullout. They’re angry about recent incidents like the recent nighttime rampage for which an American staff sergeant now stands accused of 17 counts of murder. And yet they also worry that civil war could be looming.

Pakistani leaders complain that the Americans are demanding the impossible. They can’t just shut down the Taliban’s sanctuaries, they say. Thousands of Pakistani soldiers have been killed or wounded in action against the militants on their side of the border. “We can’t just bring a steamroller through FATA,” says Durrani. He’s talking about Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Area along the Afghan frontier. “The U.S. with all its might can’t even do that inside Afghanistan. So how do you expect Pakistan, a Third World country with only a fraction of your resources, to take on all these militants together? We don’t have the capability.” In any case, Lodhi says, the Americans shouldn’t blame Pakistan: “Sanctuaries don’t create insurgencies. The problem lies in Afghanistan.”

America may now be more dependent than ever on Pakistan’s cooperation. “We both want to wind down the war into a controlled political solution,” says Lodhi. “So there is greater potential convergence between our two countries than there has been in the past 10 years.” They just need to change their attitudes, she says: “Maybe we can now morph the relationship into a more minimalistic and realistic one, with neither side having expectations that the other cannot fulfill.” That sounds good. But don’t hold your breath.