In the past week the United States obtained significant leverage over the Pakistani state—the leverage of embarrassment for the Pakistanis over the world’s most wanted man hiding under its military’s nose. The Obama administration should now use this leverage and all the tools at its disposal to tilt the balance in favor of those within Pakistan who favor full U.S.-Pakistan counterterrorism cooperation.
The U.S. military raid that killed Osama bin Laden deep inside Pakistani territory is a major embarrassment for Pakistan’s government and military. It points to either complicity or, at best, incompetence on the part of Pakistan’s security establishment. Bin Laden was found and killed in an expensive and conspicuous compound in a city home to the country’s leading military academy, a military base, and many military retirees.
Moreover, the U.S. decision not to inform the Pakistanis for fear they might alert the targets, according to CIA Director Leon Panetta, further compounds the embarrassment for Islamabad and Rawalpindi.
Questions about which parts of the Pakistani state knew about Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts and when they knew it will have to be answered. John Brennan, President Obama’s top counterterrorism advisor, has promised as much. But the answers are no substitute for Pakistani action.
So far, the Pakistani reaction to the raid has been mixed. Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a defensive statement about the raid and its location in Abbottabad, stressing its counterterrorism actions while expressing “deep concerns” about the raid and warning, “Such actions undermine cooperation and may also sometime constitute [a] threat to international peace and security.”
At the same time, an officer with Pakistan’s top intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, told the BBC that the location of bin Laden’s compound “was not on our radar” and is “an embarrassment for the ISI.”
President Asif Ali Zardari, in an op-ed in The Washington Post on Monday, defended his state’s counterterrorism policies but also lauded cooperation with the United States. Whether President Zardari’s view prevails will depend on how those favoring cooperation with the United States can overcome those who wish to continue the passive-aggressive approach toward Al Qaeda.
A simple analysis will accuse the Pakistani government—or at least its security establishment—of modulating its response to the Al Qaeda threat to extract funds from the United States to the tune of more than $20 billion since 9/11. But this ignores certain realities: Pakistani security forces have dramatically increased military operations against militant groups such as Tehrik-e-Taliban—who are linked to Al Qaeda—in both the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Khyber Paktunkhwa over the past several years. Al Qaeda has posed a real threat to Pakistan, inspiring militant groups responsible for the deaths of thousands of Pakistanis.
Nor does this analysis recognize the fragmented nature of the Pakistani state, with deep fissures between the military and civilians, within the military and its own intelligence service, between the federal and provincial governments, and between rival political parties.
Nevertheless, Pakistan’s leaders—both civilian and military—have a choice in the aftermath of the unilateral U.S. raid—a move long telegraphed by President Obama’s repeated statements that the United States would act against the terrorist leader unilaterally if it had actionable intelligence.
They can continue their current passive-aggressive approach toward Al Qaeda and its allies, denying the magnitude of their terrorist problem, selectively capturing or killing wanted Al Qaeda figures, making untenable distinctions between terrorist groups operating in their country that increasingly work as an interlinked syndicate, and stirring up nationalist sentiment over slights to Pakistani sovereignty all while accumulating billions of dollars in rents from the United States.
Or they can, as President Obama said in his statement Sunday night, “continue to join us in the fight against al Qaeda and its affiliates.”
What is required now is a fundamental reorientation by the Pakistani state—including its military and intelligence service—away from denial and toward acceptance of the very real threat Al Qaeda and its affiliates pose to the United States and the Pakistani people.
Embarrassment can be a powerful tool for those within the Pakistani state and security establishment who want to confront the terrorist threat and cooperate with the United States to do so. Going forward, the character of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship will be determined by whether or not those in Pakistan who have refused to move against the full range of terrorist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Sipah-e-Sahaba, and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi continue to have the upper hand in internal Pakistani deliberations or whether different voices can emerge. And a clear U.S. policy offering both carrots and sticks potentially provides more impetus for change.
The United States should structure its relationship with Pakistan to encourage and bolster those within Pakistan who wish to work with us to defeat our common enemies while isolating those within the Pakistani government and security establishment who continue to deny the reality of the militant threat within their borders and insist on a narrow, transactional relationship.
As a start, this will require supporting Pakistan’s civilian government, which is struggling to assert itself within an environment dominated by Pakistan’s security establishment, which dictates Pakistan’s national security. While the civilian government is flawed and weak, strengthening it is the only path to long-term security and prosperity in Pakistan. U.S. assistance to Pakistan’s development and governmental institutions should be examined carefully to make sure it is more effective, and that it is reaching a broader swathe of the Pakistani population.
Moreover, the United States should outline a clearer set of expectations surrounding counterterrorism operations in return for continued military assistance. This might entail conditioning its assistance to the Pakistani military on more and better cooperation against Al Qaeda and its allies in Pakistan.
The U.S. military operation that killed Osama bin Laden has raised profound and troubling questions about the future of U.S.-Pakistan relations and Pakistan’s trustworthiness as an ally. How these questions are answered will depend in large part on how Pakistan proceeds in acting against terrorist groups operating on its soil.
Peter Juul is a Policy Analyst and Brian Katulis and Caroline Wadhams are Senior Fellows at American Progress.
- After bin Laden: Implications for U.S. Policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Caroline Wadhams and Colin Cookman
- The bin Laden Aftermath by Brian Katulis
- Osama’s Death Unites Americans that Came of Age After 9/11 by Sam Fulwood III
- Another Way to Fight Terrorism by Sarah Margon
- The Force of Special Forces by Lawrence Korb