Why We're Stuck with Pakistan

The U.S.-Pakistan relationship is no love match. But it will survive the raid on Osama bin Laden

  • Warrick Page / THE NEW YORK TIMES / REDUX

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    For the first three decades of Pakistan's existence, its leaders, both military and civilian, ran a largely secular state. That changed in 1977, when General Zia ul-Haq took power in a military coup. He cemented his rule by instituting Islamic law and revising the educational curriculum in an effort to promote nationalism and an Islamic identity. Had it not been for the 1979 Soviet invasion of neighboring Afghanistan, Pakistan's secular elite might have rebelled. Instead the country rallied in support of its neighbor, out of fear that it might be next.

    Fearing the same thing, the U.S. supported Pakistan as it armed and trained Afghan mujahedin to take on the Soviets. This required both subterfuge and a certain amount of denial: since U.S. law forbade aid to a nation pursuing nuclear weapons, Washington chose to pretend Pakistan was doing no such thing. When Soviet forces pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989, Pakistan was left with more than 3 million Afghan refugees and a generation brought up with the culture of jihad. Then, in 1990, Pakistan's nuclear program was finally recognized, and the U.S., which had already cut aid, imposed sanctions on Islamabad. "You used us, and then you dumped us," says Qadir, the retired general, echoing national sentiment. "And Pakistanis are convinced you are going to do it again."

    Uniform Power
    The U.S.-Pakistan alliance in the 1980s vastly empowered the Pakistani military and its Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). American aid flowed through them, swelling their sense that they alone could safeguard the nation's interests. When Pakistan returned to civilian rule in 1988, the military retained effective control of national security and foreign policy, redirecting Islamist fervor against India in a protracted guerrilla war. Civilian rule lasted barely a decade. By the end of 1999, Musharraf, another general, had seized power in a coup.

    The U.S. didn't seem that concerned. After 9/11, sanctions were lifted and aid restarted, with the Pakistani military again serving as the main conduit. In exchange, Islamabad would enable the free flow of supplies to NATO troops in Afghanistan, allow covert U.S. operations against terrorist groups sheltered in Pakistan and mop up any groups that threatened U.S. interests. Musharraf's replacement by a civilian government in 2008 didn't change the terms of the deal, but it coincided with growing concern in the U.S. that the Pakistanis were not keeping up their end of the bargain. While Pakistan was indeed doing battle against some terrorist groups, it also seemed to allow others to thrive: the Haqqani network, a group affiliated with al-Qaeda and which has attacked U.S. and NATO positions in Afghanistan, has safe haven in Pakistani territory. In the past two years, a succession of top U.S. officials have openly suggested that some of the most wanted terrorists were being sheltered by elements of the Pakistani establishment.

    Since the killing of bin Laden, the Obama Administration has been careful not to finger Pakistan's government or military leadership. But the bargain struck in 2001 seems to have broken down. "Clearly, from an operational perspective, the fact that the U.S. executed this raid unilaterally suggests that there's not a lot of faith in that relationship anymore," says Stephen Tankel, a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's South Asia program. "So this seems to me an opportunity to try to engage with a longer-term view toward promoting civilian governance in Pakistan."

    Many Pakistanis would like that as well but know from history not to hold their breath. "This is a golden opportunity for the civilian leadership to assert themselves," says Talat Masood, a retired lieutenant general who has long campaigned to get the military out of government. But, he adds, "knowing their capabilities, in all likelihood they will not. And that is the tragedy of Pakistan."

    The Military Mind-Set
    Why is Pakistan's civilian leadership so weak? The military is at least partly to blame. For the past two decades it has engaged in a campaign of divide and conquer, setting political parties at odds with one another. It has bought media complicity — either through intimidation or by threatening to cut lucrative advertising from military-owned enterprises. When politicians persist in criticizing the military, they are quickly silenced. One parliamentarian, who asked not to be named, says he received a series of harassing text messages within moments of criticizing the military. "A known pro-ISI journalist came up to me and said, 'Sir, they are going to make an example out of you,' '' says the parliamentarian. And then the text messages arrived: "According to news reports, you frequent a gay club in New York," the first one read. Then: "Hey, I just saw gay videos of you on YouTube." And finally, "Hi, I remember we had good times together. Love Boris."

    All of which poses an obvious question: How could an organization that so closely monitors all aspects of Pakistani life not have known that bin Laden was hiding in Abbottabad? One explanation: it wasn't looking. "The fight against al-Qaeda was part of the larger effort to play a role in the war on terror, but you didn't have a dedicated al-Qaeda unit in the ISI monitoring activities in Pakistan," explains military analyst Rifaat Hussain. "It was a classic case of not paying attention to something under your nose." Pakistanis, in truth, are less concerned that bin Laden was in their midst than about the fact that the U.S. was able to find him there and enter Pakistani territory without the military's knowledge. "This leads one to a more serious question: Are our nuclear assets safe?" asked Pakistan's former ambassador to Afghanistan Ayaz Wazir in an opinion piece in the News , an English daily. (The notion that the U.S. is after Pakistan's nuclear weapons — more than 100 bombs, by some estimates — is one of many conspiracy theories trotted out on nightly TV talk shows.)

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