U.S.-Pakistan relations hit new low

While Washington and Pakistan are increasingly at odds, neither side wants to sever the relationship.

The devil you know

Akhtar Soomro/Reuters

One year after American Navy SEALs slipped undetected into Pakistan and killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden where he had been hiding for years—in a compound a short walk from an elite military academy—Pakistan has finally taken steps to punish someone involved in the debacle.

They haven’t actually arrested anyone who was protecting the terrorist leader, mind you. Instead, last month, following a closed trial, a Pakistani tribal court sentenced Shakil Afridi, a doctor who ran a fake vaccination campaign for the CIA designed to confirm bin Laden’s presence in the compound, to 33 years in jail.

Afridi was arrested shortly after the May 2, 2011, raid. In October, a Pakistani government commission recommended he be tried for high treason because of his work for the CIA, and in the days following his sentencing it was widely reported that this was the reason for his trial. But when the court released its written verdict last week, it was revealed that Afridi had in fact been found guilty of assisting Lashkar-e-Islam, a militant group based in the Khyber tribal region, where Afridi worked. The court’s verdict notes there is evidence that Afridi worked with foreign intelligence agencies, but says it lacked jurisdiction to address those charges and recommends that a different court follow up.

The official reason for Afridi’s sentencing is suspicious, and may have been designed to deflect criticism Pakistan would have received were it to have openly jailed a man for helping America find bin Laden. The court’s verdict claims Afridi provided Lashkar-e-Islam with financial assistance. Afridi was in fact kidnapped by Lashkar-e-Islam and a ransom was paid for his release, a relative has said. Indeed, a Lashkar-e-Islam commander told the Associated Press that Afridi was never a supporter of Lashkar-e-Islam. “We will kill the foreign agent if we get the opportunity,” he added, acknowledging they had once taken Afridi captive but then let him go.

Moreover, Pakistan’s judicial concern with those supporting militant groups on its soil is selective. “There are slews of people who by any standard of respectful rule of law should be in jail,” says Christine Fair, an assistant professor at Georgetown University. “The very fact that you’ve got a bunch of known terrorists, international terrorists, who are not law-and-order issues for Pakistan just demonstrates how out of sync Pakistan is with the world.”

Notable among those whom Pakistan neglects to jail is Hafiz Saeed, founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the militant group believed to be responsible for the 2008 attacks on Mumbai. Saeed now heads a charitable front for the organization. After the U.S. offered a reward of US$10 million for information leading to his capture this year, Saeed held a press conference at an Islamabad hotel to mock the bounty.

From Washington’s perspective, the core of the matter is that a man who helped them kill Osama bin Laden is being crushed and discarded by its supposed ally in a fight against terror. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Afridi’s sentencing “unjust and unwarranted.” A senate committee voted to cut Pakistan’s aid by $33 million—one million for each year of his sentence.

This latest blow to ties between the U.S. and Pakistan follows several others. In January 2011, a CIA employee shot dead two Pakistanis in Lahore. The raid that killed Osama bin Laden infuriated Pakistanis because it took place deep inside their country without the government’s prior knowledge or approval. In November, American aircraft mistakenly killed 24 Pakistani border troops on the frontier with Afghanistan. Pakistan responded by shutting down its roads to NATO convoys supplying the coalition’s war efforts in Afghanistan.

“The U.S.-Pakistani relationship is broken and gets more broken with almost every day,” says Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who chaired U.S. President Barack Obama’s review of American policy toward Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2009.

And yet it is a relationship that neither side wants to conclusively sever. For Pakistan, and especially its military, the United States is a cash cow it can milk for hundreds of millions of dollars in aid every year. America’s interest in Pakistan is strategic and fear-driven.

“We’re concerned about what happens if Pakistan does begin to unravel,” says Stephen Cohen, a senior Brookings fellow who worked at the U.S. State Department during the Reagan administration. “It’s not simply Bosnia or Congo or Nigeria. It’s got one hundred-plus nuclear weapons.” The problem, says Ashley Tellis, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is that America can’t do much to stop Pakistan’s decay. Its economy is in shambles, and its weak civilian government does not control the country’s military or even all of its territory. “Our ability to transform those internal problems in actually limited,” says Tellis.

The United States also needs a relationship with Pakistan because of the numerous terrorist groups that are sheltered there. Pakistan’s co-operation in confronting them is uneven, but it does, for example, quietly allow U.S. drones to operate on its territory. These strikes have eliminated dozens of militant leaders, including Abu Yahya al-Libi, al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, who was killed Monday in Pakistan.

“Is it better to end the relationship? Probably not,” says Seth Jones, a political scientist at the RAND Corporation, a U.S. government-funded research centre. “Because then you lose all leverage. Every time one were to operate [drones] in Pakistan, you would be doing it as a breach of sovereignty. That’s not ideal. This kind of relationship is almost better than nothing.”

Shadowing any analysis of relations between Pakistan and the United States is Afghanistan. And it is here that differences between the two countries are likely irreconcilable. Pakistan feels it needs to control Afghanistan. To accomplish this, Pakistan arms and funds insurgent groups—including the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network—to destabilize the Afghan government and bloody its international backers, like the U.S. and Canada.

“Certainly in Afghanistan we have radically different agendas,” says Riedel, who spent three decades working for the CIA. “We could go a step further and say that Pakistan and America, or even Pakistan and NATO, are fighting a proxy war in Afghanistan. We support the Karzai government, and they support the Afghan Taliban. Without Pakistani support, the Afghan Taliban would be a much-diminished force. And it’s not even clear that they would have made the recovery that they did in the last decade without Pakistani help.”

Riedel believes there might be a way out, if the U.S. can help broker some sort of political deal between the Afghan government and Pakistan-backed insurgent groups, such as the Haqqanis and the Taliban. This outcome is far from the outright victory in Afghanistan the United States and NATO once sought, admits Riedel. “But it’s also a reflection that military victory in Afghanistan is impossible at a price we’re willing to pay anymore.”

Yet both the United States and the Afghan government have been trying for years to reach a political settlement with the Taliban—without success, and in the face of opposition from large numbers of Afghans, especially in the non-Pashtun north. The Taliban are not interested in dealing. And with Afghanistan’s international partners preparing to leave the country in 2014, they see little reason to compromise.

“Everyone knows the endgame. Pakistan wins this,” says Fair. “It has the staying power that we don’t have. It wants certain kind of people in Afghanistan, namely the Afghan Taliban. Once we’ve left, and they see an opening, they’re going to go in with money, bags of it, and military training, and intelligence assistance. And they’re going to do their best to rebuild Afghanistan in a way that is most suitable to them. They’ve always done this. They’re not going to stop.”