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U.S.-Pakistani Relations:  Beyond bin Laden

The last week has been filled with announcements and speculations on how Osama bin Laden was killed, what the source of intelligence was.  Ultimately, this is not the issue.  After any operation of this sort, the world is filled with speculation on sources and methods by people who don’t know, and silence or dissembling by those who do.   Obfuscating the precise facts of how the intelligence was developed and precisely how the operation was carried out is an essential part of covert operations.  It is essential that the precise process be distorted in order to confuse opponents of how things happened. Otherwise, the enemy learns lessons and adjusts.  There is also the need for taking the country and the international community into confidence, via public relations, which has to be balanced with the need for obfuscating details of a covert operation. The goal is to be able to engage in pr without jeopardizing the need for obfuscation. Ideally, the lessons the enemy learns are the wrong ones, and the adjustments they make further weaken them. Operational disinformation is the last and critical phase of covert operations.  Therefore as interesting it is to speculate on precisely how the United States found out where bin Laden was, and exactly how the attack took place, it is ultimately not a fruitful discussion nor does it focus on the really important question: the future relations of the United States and Pakistan.

It is not inconceivable that Pakistan aided the United States in identifying and capturing Osama bin Laden, but it is unlikely for this reason.  The consequence of the operation was the creation I would say exacerbation of tensions since there have been several bouts of tensions b/w the two multiple times in the past few years, the most recent being the helicopter strike on those border posts in 2010 of terrific tension between the two countries, with the administration letting it be known that they saw Pakistan as either incompetent or duplicitous, and that they deliberately withheld news plans for the operation of the operations from the Pakistanis.  The Pakistanis, for their part, made it clear that any further operations of this sort on Pakistani territory would could lead to an irreconcilable breach between the two countries.  The attitudes of the governments profoundly effected views of politicians and the public.  These attitudes will be difficult to erase.  Therefore, the idea that the tension between the two governments is mere posturing designed to hide Pakistani cooperation is unlikely.  Posturing is designed to cover operational details, not to lead to a significant breach between the countries.  The relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan is ultimately far more important than the details of how Osama bin Laden was captured, and both sides have created an atmosphere not only of tension, but also one that the government will find difficult to contain.  You don’t sacrifice strategic relationships for the sake of operational security.  Therefore, we have to assume that the tension is real and revolves around the different goals of Pakistan and the United States.

A break between the United States and Pakistan is significant for both sides.  For Pakistan it means the loss of an ally that would protect Pakistan from India.  would say ‘help Pakistan fend against its much larger neighbor to the east, India’. Protect makes it sound too one-sided, when really it’s a balance For the United States, it means the loss of an ally in the war in Afghanistan. This of course depends on how deep the tension goes, and that depends on what the tension is over—ultimately whether the tension is worth the strategic rift.  It is also a question of which side is sacrificing the most.  It is therefore important to understand the geopolitics of U.S.-Pakistani relations beyond the question of who knew what about bin Laden. 

U.S. strategy in the Cold War included a religious component—using religion to generate tension within the Communist bloc. This could be seen in the Jewish resistance in the Soviet Union, in Catholic resistance in Poland and obviously, in Muslim resistance to the Soviets in Afghanistan.  In Afghanistan this took the form of using religious Jihadists Islamist militias to wage a guerrilla war against Soviet occupation.  The war was wage with a three part alliance—the Saudis, the Americans and the Pakistanis.  The Pakistanis had the closest relationships with the Afghan resistance due to ethnic and historical bonds, and the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, had building close ties as part of its mission.

As frequently happens, the lines of influence ran both ways and the ISI did not simply control the Mujahedeen Islamist militants, but in turn many within the ISI were influence by they radical Islamicst ideology, to the point that the ISI became a center of radical Islamism not so much on an institutional level as on a personal level. The case officers, as the phrase goes, went native. While the U.S. strategy was to align with radical Islamism against the Soviets, this did not pose a major problem. Indeed, when the Soviet Union collapsed and the United States lost interest in the future of Afghanistan, managing the conclusion of the war fell to the Afghans and to the Pakistanis through the ISI. In the civil war that followed Soviet withdrawal, the U.S. played a trivial role, while it was the ISI, in alliance with the Taliban—a coalition of many of the Mujahedeen Afghan and international Islamist fighters that had been supported by the US, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan—that shaped the future of Afghanistan.

Anti-Soviet sentiment among radical Islamists morphed into anti-American sentiment after the war.  The U.S.- Mujahadeen Islamist relationship was an alliance of convenience for both sides.  It was temporary and when the Soviets collapsed, Islamist ideology focused on new enemies, the United States chief among them. This was particularly true after Desert Storm (I would say it was before desert storm -- after the Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait and the US buildup of forces in Saudi Arabia) and the perceived occupation of Saudi Arabia and the violation of its territorial integrity, perceived as a religious breach.  Therefore at least some elements of international Islamism focused on the United States, at the center of which was al Qaeda.  Looking for a base of operations (after being expelled from Sudan)  this is also 6 or 7 years later, it's not clear you are making that jump as written Afghanistan provided the most congenial home, and in moving to Afghanistan and allying with Taliban, inevitably al Qaeda became tangled up with Pakistan’s ISI, which was deeply involved with Taliban. (Though the ISI/AQ links went back years prior to AQ’s move back to Afghanistan.)yes, i don't think you can ignore this

After 9-11, the United States demanded that the Pakistanis aid the United States in its war against al Qaeda and Taliban.  For Pakistan, this represented a profound crisis.  On the one hand, Pakistan needed the United States badly to support it in what it saw as its existential enemy, India.  On the other hand, Pakistan, regardless of policy by the government, found it difficult to rupture or control the intimate relationships, ideological and personal, that had developed between the ISI and Taliban and by extension, to some extent with al Qaeda. Breaking with the United States could, in Pakistani thinking, lead to strategic disaster with India. Accommodating the United States could lead to unrest, potential civil war and even potentially collapse by energizing not only elements of the ISI but also broad based supporters of Taliban and radical Islamism in Pakistan.

The Pakistan solution was to overtly appear to be doing everything possible to support the United States in Afghanistan, with a quiet limit on what that support would entail.  The limit was that the Pakistan government was not going to trigger a major uprising in Pakistan that would endanger the regime. (I think I know what you mean in this sentence, but it is hard to follow. Are you saying the Pak gov wouldnt do anything that would cause a significant backlash at home?) The uprising actually happened and has been ongoing since 2006 with some 30,000 citizens, including 5000 security forces personel killed in the al-Qaeda-Pakistani Taliban war against Pakistani army/ISI. The Pakistanis were prepared to accept a degree of unrest in supporting the war, but not push it to the point of danger to the regime. (OK, see it here. but stumbled over that other sentence) The Pakistanis therefore were walking a tightrope between, for example, demands that they provide intelligence on al Qaeda and Taliban activities and permit U.S. operations in Pakistan, and the internal consequences of doing so.  The Pakistani policy was to accept a degree of unrest to keep the Americans supporting Pakistan against India, but not so much support that it would trigger more than a certain level of unrest.  So for example, the government somewhat? purged the ISI of more overt supporters of radial Islamism, but did not go to the point of either completely purging ISI, or ending informal relations between purged intelligence officers and ISI.  Pakistan pursued a policy that did everything to appear to be cooperative while not really meeting American demands.

The Americans were, of course, completely aware of the Pakistani (game? limits?) and did not ultimately object to it.  The United States did not want a coup in Islamabad nor did it want massive civil unrest.  The United States needed Pakistan on whatever terms the Pakistanis could provide help.  First, they needed the supply line from Karachi to Khyber pass.  Second, while they might not get complete intelligence from Pakistan, the intelligence they got was invaluable.  While the Pakistanis could not close the Afghan Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan, they could limit them and control their operation to some extent.  The Americans were as aware as the Pakistanis that the choice was not full cooperation or limited, but could possibly be between limited cooperation and no cooperation, because the government might not survive full cooperation.  The Americans took what they could get.

Obviously this relationship created friction.  The Pakistani position was that the United States had helped create this reality in the 1980s and 1990s.  The American position was that after 9-11, the Pakistanis had to, as the price of U.S. support, change their policies.  The Pakistanis said there were limits. The Americans agreed and the fight was about the limits.

The Americans felt that the limit was support for al Qaeda.  They felt that whatever the relationship with Afghan Taliban, support in suppressing al Qaeda, a separate organization, had to be absolute.  The Pakistanis agreed in principle, but understood that the intelligence on al Qaeda flowed most heavily from those most deeply involved with radical Islamism. In others words, the very people who posed the most substantial danger to Pakistani stability were also the ones with the best intelligence on al Qaeda and that therefore, fulfilling the U.S. demand in principle was desirable. In practice, difficult to carry out under Pakistani strategy. 


This was the breakpoint between the two sides.  The Americans accepted the principle of Pakistani duplicity, but drew a line at al Qaeda.  The Pakistanis understood American sensibilities but didn’t want to incur the risks domestically of going too far.  This was the psychological break point of the two sides and it cracked open on Osama bin Laden, the holy grail of American strategy, and the third rail or Pakistani policy.

Under normal circumstances, this level of tension of institutionalized duplicity should have blown the U.S.-Pakistani relationship apart, with the U.S. simply breaking with Pakistan.  It did not and likely will not for a simple geopolitical reason, and one that goes back to the 1990s.  In the 1990s, when the United States withdrew from Afghanistan, (? what do we mean about the US withdrawing from Afghanistan? or is this about ending the support and operations around teh Mujahaddin) it depended Pakistan to manage Afghanistan. Afghanistan (Pakistan?) was going to do this because it had no choice. Afghanistan was Pakistan’s back door and given tensions with India, Pakistan could not risk instability in its rear.  The U.S. didn’t have to ask Pakistan to take responsibility for Afghanistan.  It had no choice in the matter.

The United States is now looking for an exit from Afghanistan.  It’s goal, the creation of a democratic, pro-American Pakistan (Pakistan? or Afghanistan?) able to suppress radical Islamism in its own territory is unattainable with current forces and probably unattainable with far larger forces.  General David Petraeus, the architect of the Afghan strategy, has been transferred from Afghanistan to being the head of the CIA[this is not official yet, should note that.  he has been nominated]. Believe the transfer happens in June, will need to reword ‘on his way out’ With Petraeus gone the door is open to a redefinition of Afghan strategy.  The United States, despite Pentagon doctrines of long wars, is not going to be in a position to engage in endless combat in Afghanistan. There are other issues in the world that has to be addressed. With the death of Osama bin Laden, a plausible, if not wholly convincing, argument can be made that it is mission accomplished in AfPak, as the Pentagon refers to the theater, and that therefore withdrawal can begin.

No withdrawal strategy is conceivable without a viable Pakistan.  In the end, the ideal is the willingness of Pakistan to send forces into Afghanistan to carry out American strategies.  This is unlikely as the Pakistanis don’t share the American concern for Afghan democracy, nor are they prepared to try to directly impose solutions in Afghanistan.  At the same time, Pakistan can’t simply ignore Afghanistan because of its own national security issues and therefore will move to stabilize it.

The United States does have the option of breaking with Pakistan, stopping aid, and trying to handle things in Afghanistan.  The problem with this strategy is that the logistical supply line fueling Afghan fighting runs through Pakistan and alternatives would either make the U.S. dependent on Russia—and equally uncertain line of supply, or on the Caspian route, which is insufficient to supply forces.  Afghanistan is, in the end, a war at the end of the earth for the U.S., and it must have Pakistani supply routes.

Second, the United States need Pakistan to contain, at least to some extent, Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan.  The United States is stretched to the limit doing what it is doing in Afghanistan.  Opening a new front in Pakistan, a country of 180 million people, is well beyond the capabilities of either forces in Afghanistan or forces in the U.S. reserve. Therefore a U.S. break with Pakistan threatens the logistical foundation of the war in Afghanistan, as well as posing strategic challenges U.S. forces can’t cope with.

The American option might be to support a major crisis between Pakistan and India to compel Pakistan to cooperate with the U.S.  However, it is not clear that India is prepared to play another round in the American dog and pony show with Pakistan. dog and pony show somehow I don’t think this will translate well.. Second, in creating a genuine crisis, the Pakistani would face two choices.  First, there would be the collapse of Pakistan, which would create an India more powerful than the U.S. might want. More likely, it would create a unity government in Pakistan in which distinctions between secularists, moderate Islamists and radical Islamists would be buried under anti-Indian feeling. Doing all of this to deal with Afghan withdrawal would be excessive, even if India would play the game—and it could blow up in the American’s face.

What I am getting at is the U.S. cannot change its policy of the last ten years.  It has during this time accepted what support the Pakistanis could give and tolerated what was withheld.  U.S. dependence on Pakistan so long as it is fighting in Afghanistan is significant, and the U.S. has lived with Pakistan’s multi-tiered policy for a decade because it had to. Nothing in the capture of bin Laden changes the geopolitical realities. So long as the United States wants to wage - or end - a on Afghanistan, it must have the support of Pakistan to the extent that Pakistan is prepared to provide support.  The option of breaking with Pakistan does not exist? because on some level it is acting in opposition to American interests is simply not there.

This is the ultimate contradiction in U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and even the war on terror as a whole. The U.S. has an absolute opposition to jihadists.  To fight them [you can't fight terrorrism!] requires the cooperation of the Muslim world, as U.S. intelligence and power is inherently limited.  The Muslim world has an interest in containing terrorism [tactic.  not a movement or group]  but for them it is not the absolute concern it is for the United States.  Therefore, they are not prepared to destabilize their countries in service to the American imperative.  This creates deeper tensions between the Untied States and the Muslim world, and increases the American difficulty in dealing with terrorism—or with Afghanistan. 

The United States must either develop the force and intelligence to wage war without any assistance, which is difficult to imagine given the size of the Muslim world and the size of the U.S. military.  Or it will have to accept half-hearted support and duplicity.  Alternatively, it will have to accept that it will not win in Afghanistan and will not be able to simply eliminate international jihadists.  These are difficult choices, but the reality of Pakistan drives home that these are in fact the choices

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