The American raid into Abbottabad to take down Osama bin Laden has illuminated the tortured relationship between Pakistan the United States. Before we try to examine this relationship, it will do us well to remember that diplomacy is the official language of duplicity. Nations lie to each other as a matter of course, it is just done in an elaborate Kabuki of bows, scrapes, circumlocution, silk suits and embarrassingly expensive dinners at embarrassingly expensive hotels. So the maddening disingenuousness of Islamabad is a difference of degree, not of kind.
Pakistan, like Egypt, is a nation run by its military – never mind the periodic elections – but unlike Egypt, Pakistan’s military is not hostile to radical Islamists among its people. Indeed, their intelligence agency, the ISI, created the Taliban to govern Afghanistan after the withdrawal of Soviet troops, and still hosts its remnants. Imagine the tightrope Islamabad must walk in order to maintain a partnership with America in dismantling al Qaeda, another Sunni radical Islamist organization and operational partner of the Taliban, who hosted them in Afghanistan. Why would they undertake such an arrangement?
Money and insulation. We have promised billions to Pakistan to train their military in the ways of counterterror and small unit operations in order to assist in patrolling the largely lawless tribal regions in the Khyber Pass area of the northwest, where al Qaeda and the Taliban were holed up after their escape from Tora Bora. And, Pakistan felt secure in their absolute paranoia about being invaded by the militarily superior India over their ongoing dispute in the Kashmir. Islamabad was gambling that they could do enough to flush out al Qaeda and provide enough dribbles of intelligence to keep the money flowing, and then hold up the Americans as deterrence against Indian adventurism. At the same time, they couldn’t do too much, else risk upsetting elements among their own population who held sympathetic views toward the “Islam versus the infidel West” narrative, not to mention elements within the military and intelligence corps who had vested interests in maintaining the Taliban. The whole house of cards is duplicity wrapped in disingenuousness surrounded by lies. Why would we undertake such an arrangement?
Geography and area denial. If you look at how Afghanistan is situated, you’ll see that access is through Iran, Pakistan and three of the ‘Stans (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan – all of whom, in turn, require access through Russia). If we are to operate within Afghanistan, we must, from a practical standpoint, do it through Pakistan. We are also aware of the aforementioned schizophrenic persona of the Pakistani population regarding internal terrorism and the state’s unstable relationship with India … and the unsettling fact that Islamabad is in possession of over 100 fission and fusion warheads. If Pakistan has a bifurcated rationale for working with the United States in its war next door, we have compound-complex reasons to do so.
Each wants from the other things that cannot be given, yet the relationship demands the illusion of the attempt. Thus, as an example, ISI informs us of the location of an al Qaeda training camp (knowing that al Qaeda and the Taliban cohabitate and co-train as a matter of course), and then act shocked when Pakistanis are killed in the resultant Predator strike (leaving out the detail that they ware all sitting around assembling IEDs as a family after-dinner activity). It’s all a wink-wink nod-nod part of the duplicity that is diplomacy. Pakistan’s tip allows us to further weaken the outside forces threatening our troops and efforts in Afghanistan, and Pakistan’s outrage saves face among its people.
Our anger at Pakistan must be tempered by the danger of causing a collapse of the regime, because chaos is ruled by the ruthless, and whatever replaces the current government is all but guaranteed to be worse, more hostile to the West, likely aligned with jihadists, and in possession of that nuclear arsenal. Pakistan’s anger at us must be tempered by the danger of diminishing returns in both money and protection from India, as well as the usual fear of ruling elites – being exposed to the whim of their conquerors.
It’s a tenuous relationship from whatever angle you wish to view it.
Now to the bin Laden riddle. Did they know? How could they not? If they knew, didn’t they know we would find out? If we did find out, how were they going to handle that? The whole situation defies credulity, whichever way you come down on it.
Here’s my take on it. First of all, in an authoritarian regime, transparency isn’t an attribute, it’s an accident. I don’t believe that the executive level of Pakistan’s government knew of bin Laden’s presence in-country, although a select few at the three-star level (or so) did. In a government operated by the military, things would naturally be compartmentalized, and this operation would have been highly compartmentalized with that. Thus, the head of ISI could – honestly – deny knowledge, let alone complicity, in the maintaining of bin Laden, and indeed, offer his resignation to the legislature over the embarrassing situation. Having said that, and remembering the example of the Predator strike on the al Qaeda/Taliban training camp, this denial is the only thing Islamabad could say in the wake of the raid. But I believe it. The risk was too high, and the alternatives too numerous – hide out in the Peshawar, where Islamabad’s authority is non-existent; seek a quiet working asylum in Iran, where the native opaqueness of that government would prove impenetrable to Western intelligence; return to Sudan or Somalia where outside governments fear to tread. There was just too much to lose by government at the highest levels being caught secreting bin Laden.