The killing of Osama bin Laden in a comfortable neighborhood not far from Pakistan’s capital has again illustrated the fundamentally ambiguous nature of the security relationship between Washington and Islamabad.
In the past, Pakistani authorities have played a key role in capturing or killing al-Qaida leaders, mainly because many of the most prominent international terrorists are located on their territory. This has led to suspicions that some terrorists enjoy the support of influential Pakistanis. Bin Laden appears to have had similar protection, an impression reinforced by the fact that his enormous compound was a stone’s throw from Pakistani military facilities and within an hour’s drive of Islamabad.
But while Pakistani authorities almost certainly engage in double dealing, the relationship does offer Washington concrete benefits. One such area involves the hundreds of U.S drone strikes that take place in Pakistani territory annually. Officially, Islamabad either condemns or denies these strikes, but privately the Pakistanis are complicit in them.
During the past decade, Pakistan has also cooperated with the United States to enhance the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons arsenal. The U.S. has provided more than $100 million to help install sensor systems, erect physical barriers, strengthen the national command-and-control system, train Pakistan’s nuclear personnel and implement new personnel security programs. Yet, Pakistani officials have not publicized their nuclear security cooperation with the United States due to domestic sensitivities, including fears among some Pakistanis that the United States and its allies will try to seize or disable Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.
Pakistan’s civilian government finds itself in a difficult situation regarding the relationship with the U.S., as the return of democracy to Pakistan has made it more difficult for the government in Islamabad to pursue policies that ignore popular views. Pakistani public opinion is clearly hostile to the United States in general and to U.S. military operations within their country in particular. Pakistanis widely blame the U.S. war against the Taliban and al-Qaida for bringing terrorism to Pakistan, which has suffered from suicide bombings and other civil strife in recent years. They see the stepped-up drone and border attacks as a form of coercive pressure to get them to crack down on the Taliban insurgents and terrorists operating in its tribal areas.
At the same time, Pakistan receives billions of dollars of assistance from the United States, and the civilian government is genuinely opposed to terrorism. Pakistani officials have sought to limit U.S. military operations in their country by affirming their commitment to rein in extremist activity in Pakistan and across the border in Afghanistan. But for Islamabad, a break with the United States and NATO would diplomatically benefit its neighbor and rival, India.
The delicate balance was on display in the recently resolved Raymond Davis affair. Davis, a CIA contractor working under the cover of the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, shot and killed two Pakistani men in January. Many Pakistanis complain that the incident exposed the problems inherent in the large U.S. intelligence presence in their country. Not only do the CIA and Pakistani government work together to identify and arrest suspected terrorists, but they also collaborate to identify targets for the U.S. drone strikes on Pakistani territory.
The same pattern of distrustful collaboration is now on display in the Pakistani government’s reaction to the U.S. special forces raid that killed bin Laden. Officially, the Pakistanis welcomed the raid, while claiming they were not told in advance about it. Yet, like some of the drones used to attack targets in Pakistan, the helicopters employed in the raid might have taken off from airfields on Pakistani territory. That suggests that in some cases, the Pakistani government allows U.S. special forces to conduct missions on Pakistani soil without requiring additional separate authorization.
The United States certainly has no interest in deepening the breach with Pakistan. President Barack Obama made sure to say nice things about Islamabad in his announcement of the capture. But the circumstances surrounding bin Laden’s hiding place and death will probably have some impact on the “trust deficit” between Pakistan and the United States. Whether the impact will be negative or positive, however, remains unclear.
The role played by Pakistan’s security sector as the U.S. military reduces its presence in Afghanistan in coming years will be one deciding factor. As U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen pointed out in his trip to Pakistan last month, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) service retains links with the Haqqani network, which supports some of the most brutally effective insurgents in Afghanistan and has ties to al-Qaida. The network still has its main base of operations in North Waziristan, on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
The United States also fears the expanding global role of jihadi groups based in Pakistan and possibly enjoying some ISI support. Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, which until recently directed their operations against India, now plot against Western targets as well as their opponents in Pakistan. The terrorists sometimes act independently of their Pakistani backers, including by conducting operations against Pakistani targets.
In response, the United States will continue its unpopular drone strikes in the Pakistani tribal areas harboring these groups, as the region remains outside the control of the Pakistani military, and Pakistani authorities have prohibited cross-border operations by U.S. and Afghan forces on their territory.
Yet, although most observers have focused on the damning circumstances surrounding bin Laden’s death, an improved relationship moving forward cannot be excluded as a possibility. Should the Pakistanis more reliably partner with the U.S. in targeting al-Qaida and other terrorist groups, it would allow a reduction in the number of drone strikes, a persistent source of bilateral tension.
Bin Laden’s death could also facilitate reaching a settlement to the Afghan War, as it allows the Taliban to more easily renounce their ties to al-Qaida. These ties have represented a major impediment to reconciling the Taliban with the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and its foreign backers. This in turn could allow for a more rapid post-surge U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan starting this July than anticipated.
The United States and Pakistan certainly have common interests that transcend al-Qaida. The United States needs Pakistani support to transit military supplied to its troops in Afghanistan and to achieve a favorable regional environment for an eventual peace settlement there. Washington also relies on Pakistan’s assistance in monitoring and sometimes disrupting regional terrorist groups. Finally, the United States is very eager to collaborate with the Pakistani military to secure the country’s growing nuclear weapons arsenal.
For its part, Pakistan needs financial and diplomatic support from Washington to complement that offered by China. The United States provides Pakistan with billions of dollars in direct assistance as well as considerable revenue to Pakistanis involved in the shipping of U.S. military supplies to Afghanistan. American diplomats have also helped temper India’s reaction in the past to terrorist attacks committed by Pakistan-based groups.
Bin Laden’s discovery and death in central Pakistan will certainly complicate relations between Waashington and Islamabad in the short term, with the trust deficit likely to deepen, at least initially. But sufficient mutual interests will remain to serve as the foundation for a more beneficial relationship moving forward.