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A wide gulf between two nations that need each other

Posted: June 5, 2011 - 6:58pm

Can the shaky antiterror alliance between Pakistan and the United States be saved?

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen made an emergency visit to Islamabad last week to try to ease the tensions between our two countries, one month after Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in the military town of Abbottabad near the Pakistani capital. The Pakistani military is seething that the raid was carried out without its knowledge.

To avoid the need for future such U.S. strikes, Clinton asked the Pakistanis to act against a list of extremist leaders believed to be hiding in Pakistan. They include three senior al-Qaida figures — Ayman al-Zawahiri, Atiya Abdel Rahman and Ilyas Kashmiri — as well as the Afghan militant Sirajuddin Haqqani, and the Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar. (Omar’s name could come off the list if he broke with al-Qaida.)

“We asked the Pakistanis to work with us against those high-value targets,” I was told by a U.S. official, “so we don’t need to take any unilateral action.” But will such cooperation be forthcoming?

Having just returned from Pakistan, I’d say the answer is most unclear.

The disconnect between U.S. and Pakistani views on the killing of bin Laden and the wider struggle against terrorism is depressing. Indeed, the mistrust between Pakistan and the United States has reached such toxic levels it’s hard to see how it will be overcome.

My conversations with Pakistani officials revolved around wounded pride, not introspection. They point to Clinton’s statement that there’s no evidence that senior Pakistani officials knew where bin Laden was hiding.

Their repeated refrain: “Why didn’t you trust us to do a joint operation to get bin Laden?” They kept repeating that Pakistan has helped arrest numerous al-Qaida — and Taliban — operatives over the last decade. “We need to know where we stand,” I was told by an angry Pakistani security official. “The only issue is whether you Americans trust us as an ally.”

Yet, the U.S. perspective on the Abbottabad raid is 180 degrees different. Current and former U.S. officials believe that, prior to 2008, information on drone strikes shared with Pakistan’s ISI intelligence agency was leaked to the targets. The drone strikes came up empty, leading the CIA to stop sharing information.

The White House couldn’t take the risk of losing bin Laden by informing the Pakistanis of the raid in advance.

U.S. officials believe ISI operatives know the location of Haqqani, as well as Omar and his inner circle, given the long history of ISI ties with the Afghan Taliban. However, Pakistani security officials categorically denied to me they knew where Omar was hiding. “If we knew where he was, we’d catch him,” said one senior security official.

Pakistani officials also insist their ties with the Afghan Taliban are not what they were 15 years ago, when they helped the Taliban take control of Afghanistan. Nor, they say, are they trying — as many believe — to restore the Afghan Taliban to power. Yet, the United States has repeatedly urged Pakistan to go after the Haqqani network and Mullah Omar’s inner circle — to no avail.

Yet American officials are convinced Pakistan is playing a double game, even if it denies it. So, the trust deficit between the two sides keeps growing more intense.

The Pakistani military has gone after its own Taliban groups that threaten the state, but not after Afghan Taliban or local terrorist groups that fight India, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba. U.S. officials insist you can’t make the distinction between bad jihadis you fight and “good” jihadis you leave alone.

What I found most disturbing is evidence that Pakistan’s military might be unable to confront the Haqqanis or Afghan Taliban, even if it decided to do so. The Pakistani army is overstretched in operations against its own Taliban in its tribal areas.

Pakistan’s weak civilian government is unable to rebuild infrastructure and restore services in areas cleared of Taliban. This means that Pakistani troops can’t leave or the jihadis will return.

“If we engage Haqqani now,” says one Pakistani senior security official, “the whole region will explode.” U.S. officials concur, worrying that the Pakistani military might be defeated if it opened another front.

Moreover, the Pakistani army is suffering from an image problem with its own public, after its inability to detect the U.S. raid on Abbottabad. Adding to the humiliation, a daring jihadi raid last week on a naval facility in Karachi disgraced the armed forces further. There are reports the navy was penetrated from within by Islamists. (Frighteningly, a Pakistani journalist who reported this was murdered over the weekend.)

At this moment, the Pakistani military badly needs more cooperation with the United States. Yet the relationship appears headed in the other direction.

Pressed by an anti-American public, the military has sharply cut back on intelligence-sharing operations along the Afghan border, and asked most of the 100 or so U.S. Special Forces trainers working with their Frontier Corps troops to leave.

Under internal threat, humiliated at home, Pakistan’s military may be unable to reset relations, even as an angry Congress seeks to cut aid to Pakistan. Yet cooperation between the two countries is vital to both countries’ antiterrorist struggle — and to any U.S. exit strategy from Afghanistan.

“Americans need us and we need them,” one Pakistani official told me, correctly. Keeping that mantra in mind will be very difficult in the coming months.

• Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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