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5 May 2011, Gateway House

U.S.-Pakistan: Allies or enemies

Even ardent supporters of Pakistan are unable to explain to Washington, and indeed the rest of the world, how Osama Bin Laden lived in a mansion with the Pakistani military and ISI as his neighbours. The implications on US-Pak relations are likely to be heavy.

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The attempt to maintain a veneer of civility in public on US-Pakistan relations is indeed brave but the gulf of mistrust between the two allies-enemies has widened even more dangerously in the aftermath of the US raid that killed Osama bin Laden inside Pakistan.

In the short term, relations are likely to worsen while demands to restrict US aid to Pakistan grow as the US political establishment absorbs the implications of finding the world’s most wanted man living under the very noses of Pakistan’s powerful military.

Washington’s decision to keep Pakistan in the dark about the mission to kill bin Laden speaks volumes about the state of friendship or lack thereof between the two countries, which over the years have indulged in extreme semantic jugglery to hide their warts.

In fact, a new term is being used to describe their fraught relations – frenemies – or allies who double cross, double deal and play double games while pretending to be “friends.” It takes mountains of skill and oceans of patience to sustain such a relationship but currently the levels on both are low.

The discovery that bin Laden was living comfortably in a palatial house built in 2005 in the armpit of Pakistan’s elite military academy and close to the homes of many retired military officers in Abbottabad, a resort town north of the capital, has raised serious questions about whether he had ISI protection. Even staunch defenders of Pakistan can’t explain how bin Laden was able to hide in plain sight for so long without arousing suspicion.

Shuja Nawaz, director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a Pakistani American, said that while “proximity does not establish a direct association” but if evidence surfaces that Pakistani authorities were “complicit in creating the hideout, then all bets are off.”

Senior US officials have openly declared Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies dangerously complicit or frighteningly incompetent. The anger in Washington after years of studied tolerance is erupting on television and official briefings. John O. Brennan, President Barack Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, said it was “inconceivable that bin Laden did not have a support system in the country that allowed him to remain there for an extended period of time.”

US officials have long suspected Pakistan’s military of harboring militants and have periodically increased pressure through selective leaks and threats to cut off aid. Pakistan has responded by periodically producing a terrorist or two to placate Washington and reclaim its place as ally-in-chief in the war on terror. The growing mistrust has resulted in Washington pursuing an intermittently independent policy, while publicly urging Pakistan to shut down sanctuaries for terrorists who walk over to Afghanistan, kill US troops and come back to rest.

Leon Panetta, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said he decided early on to exclude Pakistan from Operation Osama because it was felt that “any effort to work with the Pakistanis could jeopardize the mission” and that “they might alert the targets.” He couldn’t have been blunter but what he said in public has been conventional wisdom in private for some time. The US stopped informing Pakistan of impending drone attacks after discovering that targets would disappear into the wild.

The mistrust has grown steadily over the years, prompting Washington to develop its own intelligence assets inside Pakistan, delicacies around sovereignty be damned. The ISI, angered by the increasing numbers of US intelligence operatives, embarrassed the CIA last December by naming its station chief and forcing his departure. Then came the ferocious diplomatic row over Raymond Davis, a US intelligence officer who was imprisoned in Pakistan for killing two local men. The furious attempts to rescue Davis from Pakistan earlier this year showed the US determination to protect its independent intelligence networks.

No surprise then that the noise on Capitol Hill is growing louder for an explanation from Pakistan. Did Pakistan intentionally harbour bin Laden in the hopes of using him as the ultimate card at a later stage? Senator Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, asked that Pakistan “prove to us that they didn’t know bin Laden was there.” Others are demanding that Pakistan share information about terrorist leaders such as Taliban’s Mullah Omar and Al Qaeda’s No. 2 man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who are still at large.

Senator Susan Collins, a senior Republican, has suggested that the billions of dollars in US aid to Pakistan must have “more strings attached” while a Congressman from Texas, Ted Poe, has already introduced a bill to freeze all aid. Pakistan is slated to receive $3 billion this financial year and has collected a total of $18 billion in US largesse since the 9/11 attacks in 2001 when it became a US ally, according to some estimates. It is possible the Obama Administration might slash military aid even if it continues to bolster President Asif Ali Zardari’s government with economic aid.

As Senator Lindsey Graham, a powerful Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, which oversees foreign aid, said: “Pakistan can’t be trusted, nor can it be abandoned.”

While US aid may be curtailed or conditioned, Washington is unlikely to take any precipitate action to cause a permanent rupture. The Obama Administration has invested far too much in developing a relationship that goes beyond the Pakistani military and the ISI. It has a wide-ranging strategic dialogue with the civilian government even if nascent and indeterminate. Besides, the spectre of a nuclear-armed Muslim country cut adrift scares even the strongest critics of Pakistan. Ever more, the US will maintain a presence, covert or overt, in Pakistan to prevent a case of “loose nukes” and to monitor the rise in fundamentalism.

Then there is Afghanistan where peace among various warring groups is likely only with Pakistani help because Islamabad controls key players. Obama has committed to begin drawing down US troops from Afghanistan this summer, a decision whose successful execution will play a key role in his own re-election bid. A semblance of a deal in Kabul is important for Washington as is Islamabad’s cooperation.

But how Washington leverages the current opportunity opened by the discovery and death of bin Laden while the Pakistani military and ISI are chagrined and on the defensive to force real cooperation in the future remains to be seen.

Seema Sirohi is a Washington-based journalist and analyst.

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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