The South Asia Channel

The bin Laden aftermath: The U.S. and Pakistan are still stuck with each other

Many things could have gone wrong. The Osama bin Laden mission could have turned out like Operation Desert One, the failed 1980 attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran that left eight U.S. servicemen dead. Instead, all of the heroic U.S. Navy SEALs escaped safely from Pakistan after taking out the world’s most wanted terrorist ...

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Many things could have gone wrong. The Osama bin Laden mission could have turned out like Operation Desert One, the failed 1980 attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran that left eight U.S. servicemen dead. Instead, all of the heroic U.S. Navy SEALs escaped safely from Pakistan after taking out the world’s most wanted terrorist leader.  That the U.S. soldiers apparently went undetected by Pakistani forces, and thus avoided a potentially disastrous military confrontation with our so-called "ally" in the fight against terrorism, is noteworthy.

But avoiding these pitfalls was only half the battle. Now the U.S. must deal with the fallout from the momentous event that has once again exposed deep fissures in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. In spite of these fault lines, neither the U.S. nor Pakistan can afford to allow the partnership to rupture.

While U.S. officials have gone out of their way to defend Pakistan’s record on fighting terrorism, the notion that the world’s most wanted terrorist could hide in plain sight at a large and conspicuous compound in a Pakistani city that is home to one of Pakistan’s most prestigious military training facilities strains credulity. That U.S. and Pakistani officials have confirmed that the killing of bin Laden was a unilateral U.S. operation of which the Pakistanis had no knowledge until after the fact is telling.

Many are rightly asking whether Pakistan is really the professed ally in the war on terrorism that U.S. officials have claimed it to be over the last 10 years. The United States, after all, has provided it more than $20 billion in economic and military aid. U.S. Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine), acknowledging that the bin Laden killing reveals the "double-game" Pakistan is playing vis a vis its counterterrorism policies, has called for placing more conditions on aid to Pakistan.

U.S. security aid to Pakistan already is conditioned under Section 203 of the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2009. According to the law, the U.S. Secretary of State must certify to Congress that Pakistan has "demonstrated sustained commitment to and is making significant efforts towards combating terrorist groups" consistent with the purposes of U.S. assistance. On March 18, 2011, Hillary Clinton certified that Pakistan met these benchmarks for fiscal year 2010.

But the evidence indicates otherwise. The ability of Osama bin Laden to be easily sheltered in Pakistan is just the latest example that Pakistani leaders don’t always play straight with the U.S. in the war on terrorism. For instance, it seems apparent that the U.S. and NATO military gains in southern Afghanistan in the fall of 2010 came no thanks to Pakistani assistance, and indeed were made despite the continued sanctuary for Taliban leaders located in Pakistan.

Furthermore, the Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist group responsible for the 2008 attacks in Mumbai continues to operate relatively freely in Pakistan. Pakistan has failed to bring to justice the alleged ringleaders of the operation, Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi and Zarar Shah, who have been detained by Pakistani authorities for more than two years.

It’s true that Pakistan has fought terrorists along its border with Afghanistan and lost several thousand soldiers in the fight. Pakistanis are themselves victims of terror; nearly 3,000 Pakistanis died in attacks last year alone. Still, there are signs the Pakistani military and intelligence services pursue dual terrorism policies that consist of fighting some terrorists while supporting others.

Until now Pakistanis vehemently denied bin Laden’s presence in their territory, calling the notion a western conspiracy aimed at emasculating Pakistani nuclear capabilities. However, the elimination of bin Laden some 40 miles from the capital demonstrates that the U.S. has pursued the right counterterrorism strategies in Pakistan. The U.S. strategy has included increased reliance on drone missile strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas, which have helped degrade al-Qaeda’s operational capabilities, and the deployment of more intelligence assets inside Pakistan to develop better intelligence on terrorist targets. This news should strengthen America’s hand in calling for more concerted action against other terrorists in the country.

Now, more than ever, U.S. congressional members can make a case for demanding Pakistan be more consistent in its efforts to uproot terrorism in all its forms before disbursing additional U.S. assistance. The Pakistanis will likely balk at such insistence and may even respond by cutting off NATO supply convoys into Afghanistan on a sustained basis.

While that is a risky option, the status quo has clearly run its course. The Obama administration had been willing to accept a certain degree of ambiguity in the Pakistani military’s actions and attitudes toward militancy. Links between the militants and military had built up over a long period of time and would not be easy to dissolve, the argument went. But that patience is expiring. This was evident in Admiral Michael Mullen’s frank remarks in Pakistan two weeks ago when he alluded to continued Pakistani intelligence links to the Haqqani militant network that operates from the tribal border areas.

For too long, the intelligence agencies on both sides have kept up the illusion of cooperation on the terrorism front. In reality, there has been little meeting of the minds on the subject. The C.I.A. was willing to work with the I.S.I. to target al-Qaeda while turning a blind eye to its support to other terrorist groups. The I.S.I., for its part, believed it could continue to compartmentalize its support for some militant groups so long as it cooperated with the U.S. on its major counterterrorism objectives.

This is not the basis for a long-lasting partnership, and the partnership will be doomed to failure unless Pakistan demonstrates commitment to uprooting Islamist extremism in all its forms. Obama’s hand has been strengthened by the successful operation against bin Laden. The Pakistanis are under pressure to explain their lapses in detecting bin Laden when he was under the nose of the Pakistani military. The U.S. should leverage its recent success against al-Qaeda to press its demands for Pakistan to do all it can to hunt down additional terrorists on its territory. The U.S. must develop policies that give Pakistan concrete incentives to move in this direction, rather than simply settle for bombing and raiding terrorists in the country. This should include enhancing our bilateral Strategic Dialogue that allows Pakistan to put forward its own agenda items in the relationship.

Now is not time to cut off all aid, but it is time for the U.S. to get tougher in its messaging to Pakistan, both publicly and privately. And if the U.S. expects Pakistani cooperation, it must demonstrate stronger commitment to the mission in Afghanistan and stop talking about arbitrary deadlines for withdrawal. If Pakistan begins to understand that the U.S. will remain in Afghanistan until the country is stable and secure and that it will not permit the Taliban to run the country again, it would help convince Islamabad to reassess its options there and possibly develop alternatives to supporting the Taliban. The Pakistanis are playing a game of chicken with the U.S. in Afghanistan and they believe Washington will give up first.

Pakistan also should consider the costs of alienating the U.S. by remaining recalcitrant on Afghanistan. Islamabad must be careful of getting what it wishes for — a re-Talibanized Afghanistan that would surely have a destabilizing impact on Pakistan and contribute to its own extremism problems.

The best solution for Pakistan is to work with the U.S. for stability in the region. This would include arresting more Taliban members to degrade their ability to fight coalition forces in Afghanistan, disrupting the Haqqani network’s ability to attack coalition forces in Afghanistan, and taking steps to undercut the ideology and financial networks of all terrorist groups in the country.

Bin Laden’s death alone does not signal the end of the fight against global terrorism. It is a very positive development, of course, but much hard work remains, if the U.S. and its allies are to defeat the organization and its affiliates. This includes establishing a more effective partnership with Pakistan — however daunting that task may seem.

Lisa Curtis is senior research fellow at the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation.

Lisa Curtis is a Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation's Asian Studies Center. She previously worked for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee and for the U.S. State Department, serving as Senior Advisor in Washington and as a diplomat at the U.S. embassies in Pakistan and India.

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