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

    (3 of 3)

    Yet if the raid in Abbottabad has taken some of the shine off the military brass, the generals can be relied upon to stoke anti-American sentiment as a diversion. The military is adept at making even good news look bad. In the autumn of 2009, when the civilian government cheered the prospect of U.S. legislation tripling nonmilitary aid, the generals stepped in to denounce its conditions as humiliating. The Kerry-Lugar bill marked the first time Washington had addressed the dire socioeconomic problems of Pakistan and the need to reinforce democracy there, but the military rightly perceived as a threat a rider stipulating that funds would cease in the event of a coup.

    From outrage over drone attacks to hysteria over the CIA contractor who killed a pair of Pakistanis in what appeared to be a legitimate case of self-defense, anti-U.S. rage is the military's dependable standby. "Pakistan doesn't have positive leverage over us," says Christine Fair, a Pakistan expert at Georgetown University. "So [the military] creates bilateral fiascoes through their media wing and uses that to temper what Pakistan will or will not do."

    One thing the military won't do is take on militants in North Waziristan, which serves as a haven for the Haqqani network. To retired ambassador Tanvir Khan, who served in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the cost of taking on the Haqqanis would be too high for Pakistan to bear. You have to pick your battles, he says. "If the army does in North Waziristan what the Americans want it to do, overnight the Haqqanis become enemies of Pakistan," he says. Already the military is battling insurgents elsewhere in the tribal areas. The Haqqanis "would be a much harder nut to crack," says Khan. And if the military were to dedicate its army to combatting militants on its western border, it would risk leaving its eastern flank vulnerable to attack from India.

    Given Pakistan's fear of India, that is a lot to ask. That fear may have been fanned by a military establishment attempting to justify its outsize expenditures, but India has done little to assuage the paranoia. Indeed it contributes, massing troops on the border and, according to Western diplomats in Islamabad, sending agents into Baluchistan province, where a long-simmering ethnic separatist movement invites memories of Bangladesh. And it is India — not Pakistan — that has a deal with the U.S. for the peaceful exploitation of civilian nuclear power. "From the Pakistani point of view, we are the ones playing a double game," says Pakistan expert Fair. "We reject their security concerns, saying they are not relevant. Then we ask them to move their entire military in order to wage a deeply unpopular war, and meanwhile we give India a nuclear deal. No wonder they don't trust us."

    Can't Live Without 'Em
    Still, the awkward truth remains: The U.S. needs Pakistan. U.S. officials believe that bin Laden's death offers an opportunity to peel the Taliban away from al-Qaeda. And when that happens, Pakistan will be perfectly poised to offer its assistance. Though routinely denied by Pakistani officials, it is hardly a secret that Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar has been using Pakistan as a base of operations ever since he fled the U.S. invasion in 2001.

    With the target date for turning over responsibility for Afghan security to the Afghan army in 2015 approaching, there is near universal agreement that the Taliban will have to be involved in some sort of political reconciliation. "The Americans need the Pakistanis to negotiate in Afghanistan," says a senior Western diplomat in Islamabad. In Pakistani eyes, that justifies the policy of maintaining relations with the Taliban, says Senator Azim. "We are the only ones who are accused of keeping close ties, so Pakistan is the only country that [the West] can rely on."

    Officials' knee-jerk denials of Pakistani support for the Taliban have turned into crowing triumphalism as leaders see a decade's worth of subterfuge bear fruit. Still, Azim makes it clear that his nation's interests will stay at the fore of any reconsidered relationship. Pakistan will protect its Taliban sources even as the U.S. demands greater intelligence sharing. So for Washington, says Azim, the question boils down to this: "A decision has to be made. Can you use Pakistan, with all its warts? My submission is that you don't have anyone else, so you might as well use us. Not by twisting our arm or accusing us. You know, do it nicely by sitting down with us and listening to our point of view. Our objective is to have a friendly government in Afghanistan. Americans want a safe, honorable exit. Let us help you."

    Gilani, too, insists that the relationship can be put back on track. For example, "a drones strategy can be worked out," he says. "If drone strikes are effective, then we should evolve a common strategy to win over public opinion. Our position is that the technology should be transferred to us." And, he adds, he is prepared to countenance a strategy in which the CIA would continue to use drone strikes "where they are used under our supervision" — a departure from Pakistan's publicly stated policy of condemning drone strikes as intolerable violations of sovereignty.

    What Gilani really wants is some love. Washington, he told TIME, needs to provide his people with a visible demonstration of support if it hopes to rebuild trust. The U.S., the Prime Minister says, "should do something for the public which will persuade them that it is supportive of Pakistan." As an example, he cites — of course — the U.S.-India civil nuclear agreement of 2008. "It's our public that's dying, but the deal is happening there," he says in a wounded tone. "You claim there's a strategic partnership? That we're best friends?"

    Then, casting his eyes up at his chandeliered ceiling, Pakistan's Prime Minister reaches for a verse. "When we passed each other, she didn't deign to even say hello," he intones, quoting the Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib. "How, then, can I believe that our parting caused her any tears?"

    — With reporting by Omar Waraich / Islamabad and Mark Benjamin, Massimo Calabresi and Mark Thompson / Washington

    1. 1
    2. 2
    3. 3
    4. Next Page