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

    When the U.S. confronted Pakistan after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, there were no discussions of common goals and shared dreams. There was just a very direct threat: you're either with us or against us. Pakistan had to choose between making an enemy of the U.S. and taking a quick and dirty deal sweetened with the promise of a lot of cash. In the end, Pakistan's cooperation was a transaction that satisfied the urgent needs of the day, brokered by a nervous military dictator, Pervez Musharraf, who failed to explain the value of the U.S. relationship to his people. That allowed a theme to become fixed among Pakistanis: the war on terrorism was America's war. When Pakistani soldiers started dying in battles with militant groups, when suicide bombers began killing Pakistani civilians, it was America's fault because it was America's war.

    So as Pakistanis processed the mission that killed Osama bin Laden, many concluded that they had been betrayed by their supposed ally. How dare the Americans sneak into the country without so much as a warning and conduct a military operation just 75 miles (120 km) from the capital? But they felt betrayed too by their military. How could it be that Pakistan's armed forces, which claim a lion's share of government spending, were clueless about the presence, a mere mile from the country's most prestigious defense academy, of the world's most wanted terrorist? Cyril Almeida, one of Pakistan's best-known opinion writers, summed up the national anguish in a column: "If we didn't know [bin Laden was in Abbottabad], we are a failed state; if we did know, we are a rogue state."

    Pakistan is a bit of both. It's not hard to detect dysfunction in a state where the military controls foreign policy, national security and an intelligence network so pervasive that no dinner guest at a foreign journalist's house goes unscrutinized. The civilian government, hobbled by incompetence and corruption, has no power and, even worse, no backbone. In tea shops and on street corners, Pakistanis' frustration with their leadership collides with their inability to change it. Instead they lash out at the U.S. for reminding them of their failure as a nation.

    The consequence is what Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, in an interview with TIME, calls a "trust deficit" with the U.S. Gilani insists that he can't mend the relationship with a wave of his hand. "I am not an army dictator. I'm a public figure," he tells TIME. "If public opinion is against [the U.S.], then I cannot resist it to stand with you. I have to go with public opinion." In a May 9 speech to Parliament on the Abbottabad raid, Gilani accused the U.S. of violating Pakistan's sovereignty and warned that Pakistan had the right to retaliate with "full force" against any future incursions. Others are more blunt: "To hell with the Americans," says retired Brigadier General Shaukat Qadir, a popular columnist and regular guest on TV talk shows. "We need to reconsider our relationship."

    In Washington, that sentiment is echoed in Congress, where lawmakers are demanding to know why a country that has received more than $20 billion in U.S. aid over the past decade shelters and arms enemies of the U.S. even as it purports to hunt them down. "I think this is a moment when we need to look each other in the eye and decide, Are we real allies? Are we going to work together?" said Speaker of the House John Boehner.

    It's not just the rhetoric that's heating up. Each side seems eager to poke the other in the eye. The U.S. has launched drone strikes at several sites in Pakistan since the Abbottabad operation, knowing full well that these will infuriate the Pakistani military, which sees them as a violation of sovereignty. For their part, Pakistani officials have told ABC News that they may give China parts of a destroyed U.S. stealth helicopter left behind at bin Laden's compound.

    Yet for all the anger in Islamabad and Washington, neither nation has much of a choice. However duplicitous and volatile it may be, the U.S.-Pakistan relationship is central to the interests of both countries. The U.S. needs Pakistan's help to be successful in Afghanistan. Pakistan provides, among other things, a vital transit link for goods destined for coalition troops in the landlocked country. But even without Afghanistan, the U.S. would need Pakistan to be stable. The alternative — a collapsing nation awash with terrorist groups and possessing a nuclear arsenal — is too awful to consider. How real is that prospect? "Pakistan is passing through one of the most dangerous periods of instability in its history," warns Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "[It] is approaching a perfect storm of threats, including rising extremism, a failing economy, chronic underdevelopment and an intensifying war, resulting in unprecedented political, economic and social turmoil."

    Flaws in the Foundation
    The relationship, in truth, has never been about trust. It was and is a strategic alliance founded on complementary interests: Pakistan's desire for military assistance and its fear of becoming a pariah state, and the U.S.'s need for regional support in the Afghanistan war. While Pakistan and the U.S. share similar long-term goals — economic partnership, stability in the region — their short-term needs rarely intersect. That is why the question of whose side Pakistan is on is so galling to most Pakistanis and so infuriating to most Americans. "Pakistan is on Pakistan's side," says Tariq Azim, an opposition Senator and Deputy Information Minister under Musharraf.

    Carved from the newly independent India in 1947, Pakistan has never fully resolved the quandary with which its founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, wrestled: Is it a Muslim state or a state for Muslims? While his Indian counterpart, Jawaharlal Nehru, ruled for nearly two decades — long enough to realize his vision of a secular state — Jinnah died a year after Pakistan's founding. A succession of weak civilian governments and military dictatorships followed. In that period, India and Pakistan fought three wars, mainly over the contested territory of Kashmir. In 1971, Indian military support for separatists in East Pakistan led to the creation of Bangladesh. That humiliation informs Pakistan's actions still and its belief that India constitutes an "existential threat" capable of destabilizing and further dismembering Pakistan. That fear of India, in turn, explains Islamabad's quest for nuclear weapons, which was realized with a test in 1998.

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