Debating the Future of US-Pakistani Relations

After terrorist leader Osama bin Laden was found living in Pakistan, America’s alliance with the country was called into question.

Osama bin Laden’s death last week at the hand of American special forces was a victory in the country’s War on Terror. The fact that the terrorist leader was living in the heartland of Pakistan highlighted a major impediment to that very war effort at the same time — the ability of insurgents to find safe haven with Afghanistan’s eastern neighbor.

Even former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf admitted to the “incompetence” of his country’s military and intelligence establishment this week when it turned out that bin Laden had lived for several years near an army base seventy miles northeast of Islamabad. Several American lawmakers wondered aloud whether the Pakistani intelligence service, which still maintains ties with the Afghan Taliban, didn’t shelter bin Laden.

National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon hadn’t seen “any information that would indicate foreknowledge by the political, military or intelligence leadership in Pakistan” however. He reminded ABC’s This Week that more people had died and more terrorists killed in and by Pakistan than anywhere else. “They have been an essential partner of ours in the war against Al Qaeda and in our efforts against terrorism,” he said.

More than 3,000 Pakistani soldiers and police have died in the fight against the Taliban and insurgents in the northwest of their country.

Even if some in Pakistan might have known about the terrorist leader’s whereabouts, Republican Richard Lugar of Indiana, the number two senator on the Foreign Relations Committee, stressed that division within their government probably prevented higher ranking officials from learning the fact. He, along with committee chairman John Kerry of Massachusetts, dismissed calls to end the more than $1 billion in aid the United States send to Pakistan each year. Kerry, in fact, saw an “enormous opportunity” to reevaluate America’s relationship with Pakistan while admitting that the two nations’ interests not always converged.

The Pakistanis have had a different set of interests about India, a different set of interests about what kind of Afghanistan they want to see. They’re apprehensive about a 350,000 person army being built up in Afghanistan on their border. They have a different interest on nuclear weapons.

“All of that,” said Kerry on CBS’ Face the Nation Sunday morning, “has to change” and “can change.”

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice agreed that America shouldn’t “cut off” Pakistan in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper earlier this week. “We’ve always known,” she said, “that there are elements of extremism in Pakistan and even in some of its institutions. There was a significant effort to purge some of those elements after 2001 by Musharraf and to get forces that had no links to extremism.”

The former Pakistani president, a career military officer, allowed the United States to gather intelligence on his soil and execute military strikes against suspected Taliban strongholds. He helped destroy the Taliban although Islamabad probably couldn’t have had an Afghan regime that was more compatible with its national interests.

The operation of what is largely a Punjabi army in predominantly Pashtun border provinces has pushed Pakistan onto the brink of civil war. The army’s offensives in the region displaced nearly half a million people. Until two years ago, the battle was confined to the tribal areas but since 2008, it has spread into Pakistan proper with bombings and assassinations taking place in major cities including Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore.

Since the United States are preparing to pull out of Afghanistan in 2014 — “come hell or high water,” according to Vice President Joe Biden — Pakistan has to prepare for the eventuality of a Taliban resurgence if not the emergence of an autonomous “Pashtunistan” occupying its tribal provinces in the near future.

Rice therefore warned against a premature withdrawal from Afghanistan, saying, “We have to be very careful that we don’t leave the job unfinished so it becomes a safe haven again.” Avoiding that, she argued, involved modest “nation building” operations.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney similarly urged caution, pointing out on Fox News Sunday that during the late 1980s, “after we solved the Soviet problem, everybody left Afghanistan and […] ultimately the Taliban took control, Osama bin Laden showed up; it became a safe harbor.”

If we turn and walk away from Pakistan or Afghanistan or that part of the world generally, I’m fearful that we’re headed for trouble down the road.

Counterterrorism experts both within and outside of the administration have long insisted that the mere existence of sanctuaries across the border is undermining progress made in Afghanistan however where the Taliban remain active in the mountainous frontier region.