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With Friends Like These: America's Complex and Tricky Relationship with Pakistan
May 11, 2011

 Matthew Cochrane


Since Osama Bin Laden was found and killed by U.S. forces in Abottabad, Pakistan, where he had allegedly been living for the past five years, the U.S. must reevaluate its complex and checkered relationship with Pakistan. It is a country we can only ignore at our own peril.

Pakistan is nestled between India and Afghanistan with an extended coastline along the Arabian Sea at the entrance to the Persian Gulf. It is, surprisingly, the sixth most populous country in the world and possesses the fifth largest military. Worse yet, it owns the world’s fourth largest nuclear weapon arsenal. For this reason alone we must do all we can to keep the country from falling in the hands of radical Muslim jihadists.

The United States’ relationship with the central Asian country has been shaky at best. Ostracized after developing nuclear weapons, the country was largely ignored before 9/11. As legend has it, the day after al-Qaeda leveled the World Trade Center, General Musharraf received a phone call from Colin Powell:
On September 12, 2001, General Musharraf was in a meeting “when my military secretary told me that the U.S. secretary of state, Gen. Colin Powell, was on the phone. I said I would call back later.” The milquetoasts of the State Department were in no mood for Musharraf’s I’m-washing-my-hair routine, and, when he’d been dragged to the phone, he was informed that the Bush administration would bomb Pakistan “back to the Stone Age” if they didn’t get everything they wanted. Musharraf concluded that America meant it.
Thus began our rocky, sometimes-fruitful, mostly-disappointing, post-9/11 relationship. From the beginning, President Musharraf insisted U.S. forces could not enter Pakistan to fight the Taliban. In his memoirs, Decision Points, former President George W. Bush writes:
In the months after we liberated Afghanistan, I told Musharraf I was troubled by reports of al Qaeda and Taliban forces fleeing into the loosely governed, tribal provinces of Pakistan – an area often compared to the Wild West. “I’d be more than willing to send our Special Forces across the border to clear out the areas,” I said.
He told me that sending American troops into combat in Pakistan would be viewed as a violation of Pakistani sovereignty. A revolt would likely ensue. His government would probably fall. The extremists could take over the country, including its nuclear arsenal.
This will sound familiar to those who heard his remarks following the Special Forces raid that netted Bin Laden last week. While most Americans were outraged Bin Laden had been living in relative comfort in Abottabad, Musharraf repeated the charge that the U.S. had violated Pakistani’s sovereignty. The current Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani went even further; stating that a future such attack would be met by a “full-force” retaliation.
It’s hard not to be a little sympathetic to Pakistani officials’ fears that radical Muslims would lead a coup against their government. Four attempts were made on Musharraf’s life and, after he stepped down, pro-democracy Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in late 2007 before she could take office. Unfortunately, instead of leading an all-out war against the jihadists who attempted to kill him, Musharraf, and the government officials who followed him, attempted to placate them, trying to straddle the thin line of pleasing both the U.S. and the radical Muslim extremists.
That being said, it should be pointed out that for the first few years after 9/11, Pakistan did make tangible and significant contributions to the war on terror. Bush continues:
For several years, the arrangement worked. Pakistani forces netted hundreds of terrorists, including al Qaeda leaders like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah, and Abu Faraj a Libbi…As Musharraf often reminded me, Pakistani forces paid a high price for taking on extremists. More than fourteen hundred were killed in the war on terror.
These actions did not go unrewarded. Sanctions were lifted, U.S. markets were opened to Pakistani goods, and an annual foreign aid package of $3 billion was provided to the country for its efforts. Unfortunately, the relationship between the two countries soon soured. Bush writes:
Over time, it became clear that Musharraf either would not or could not fulfill all his promises. Part of the problem was Pakistan’s obsession with India. In almost every conversation we had, Musharraf accused India of wrongdoing…
…Pakistani forces pursued the Taliban much less aggressively than they pursued al Qaeda. Some in the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, retained close ties to the Taliban officials. Others wanted an insurance policy in case America abandoned Afghanistan and India tried to gain influence there. Whatever the reason, Taliban fighters who fled Afghanistan took refuge in Pakistan’s tribal regions and populated cities like Peshawar and Quetta. In 2005 and 2006, these sanctuaries aided the rise of the insurgency.
Of course, we now have to wonder if the problem was worse than Bush guessed. Was the ISI harboring al Qaeda members all along, including Osama Bin Laden? For what it’s worth, this is the accusation Hamid Karzai has been making all along. Shortly after we killed Bin Laden in Pakistan, Karzai claimed it validated his long-held concerns that, for the most part, the terrorists were no longer in Afghanistan and had long since fled to Pakistan:
Speaking in front of a packed hall in his palace in Kabul, the Afghan president said the discovery that the world's most wanted man was holed up in a garrison town in Pakistan proved that the west's entire military strategy is misconceived.
"Year after year, day after day, we have said the fighting against terrorism is not in the villages of Afghanistan, not among the poor people of Afghanistan," he said. "The fight against terrorism is in safe havens. It proves that Afghanistan was right."
In recent months Karzai has become increasingly strident in his criticism of the US-led coalition, saying it has focused on counter-insurgency operations in the Pashtun south of the country rather than the Taliban safe havens over the border.
He also hinted that the Pakistani state itself was complicit in hiding the Saudi terrorist leader, saying Bin Laden had "hidden himself in the military bases of Abbottabad".
These are not new claims by the Afghan president. Again, in Decision Points, Bush recounts a dinner at the White House in September 2006 where he invited Musharraf and Karzai so the two could meet and work out their differences. The meeting turned testy, however, when Karzai repeatedly accused Pakistan of harboring terrorists over Musharraf’s vehement denials.
It’s hard to know whether Karzai was privy to inside information or if he was just using the accusation to strengthen his own position with the United States. One thing is for sure: Pakistan has done much to undermine our important work in Afghanistan.
As with Afghanistan, Pakistan’s help might have been more forthcoming if America had not been so preoccupied with an exit strategy and, instead, remained committed to defeating all radical Muslim forces in the region before withdrawing – no matter how long it took. Unlike Afghanistan, it is probably too late for any such commitment to make a difference with Pakistan. Unfortunately, our relationship with this Muslim country seems to have already reached the tipping point.
Earlier this week, a Pakistani television station mysteriously aired the name of the U.S.’s CIA station chief in Islamabad:
The U.S. is investigating why Pakistani media broadcast the name of a man they said is the CIA’s Islamabad station chief and if it was an attempt to out the agent following the killing of Usama bin Laden…
The alleged name of the Islamabad station chief -- one of the CIA’s most significant and sensitive assignments -- was first broadcast Friday by ARY, a private Pakistani television channel, The Wall Street Journal reported. The channel was covering a meeting between the station chief and the director of the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s spy agency.
Of course, the U.S. is denying it was the real name of agent, but it is hard to know for sure. The real question is how the television station acquired such a name. The only conceivable way is for someone in the ISI to have leaked it. Think this is a coincidence? In December, the former CIA station chief in Pakistan was “outed” by another mystery source and had to be hastily evacuated before he was killed. Clearly, the corruption and anti-American sentiment in the ISI has been institutionalized and the civilian government is either too weak or unwilling to do anything about it.
Pakistan is also currently considering whether to allow China to look at our stealth helicopter that had to be abandoned in Abottabad during the Bin Laden raid. ABC News reports:
The U.S. has already asked the Pakistanis for the helicopter wreckage back, but one Pakistani official told ABC News the Chinese were also "very interested" in seeing the remains. Another official said, "We might let them [the Chinese] take a look."
A U.S. official said he did not know if the Pakistanis had offered a peek to the Chinese, but said he would be "shocked" if the Chinese hadn't already been given access to the damaged aircraft.
The smart people in Washington, even the conservatives, now claim we must use the knowledge that Bin Laden was living in Abottabad as leverage to convince the Pakistani government to start earnestly hunting down the remaining members of radical Muslim groups within its borders. As one can see, however, this is exactly what America has been doing since 9/11. America has given Pakistan billions of dollars, trade opportunities and even offered military assistance to root out Taliban forces in its remote regions. In return, our most wanted enemies have been given safe haven and secrets vital to our national interests have been leaked.
One thing we must do is immediately halt all foreign aid to the country. While we should allow them the possibility of earning it back, by showing a major restructuring of ISI and a bountiful harvest of terrorists’ heads in the coming days, I would not harbor any false illusions of their desire or ability to do so. As esteemed historian Victor Davis Hanson wryly notes, “We've tried aid, no aid, sanctions, full diplomatic relations, estrangement,etc. At this point, all have failed, and failure without $3 billion a year is better than failure costing $3 billion a year.”
Another thing we can do is to partner with India, a democracy and rising economic power. During the Bush administration, America saw its relationship warm with India considerably and the former president remains surprisingly popular in the Asian country. This is mostly due to the nuclear cooperation agreement Bush signed with India in early 2006. Bush was happy to sign the agreement between the “world’s oldest democracy and the world’s largest democracy” and said India “has the potential to be one of America’s closest partners.”
This partnership should extend to more trade agreements, joint military training exercises, weapons purchases and an increased involvement for India in Afghanistan. In short, we should do everything we can to make India our premier ally in this dangerous part of the world. Given Bush’s enduring popularity in the country, it would be smart, both pragmatically and politically, for Obama to appoint Bush to lead these talks. Former presidents are often tapped to lead foreign delegations, and this role would be ideal for Obama’s predecessor.
Yet since Obama took office our relationship with India has cooled considerably. Last week, India refused to consider any American entries for bids on its multirole combat aircraft. This is largely due to our efforts to simultaneously appease both India and Pakistan, countries with a long history of hostility and warfare between them. As Gordon Chang notes, “Soon, we will have to make our own choice, between the terrorism-sponsoring failed state of Pakistan and the next rising power, democratic India. This should be an easy decision for us.”
Hopefully, we make the right choice.


I agree... and honestly, I'm really dissapointed in the stance that India has taken in the past year or so. It's rather frustrating because India has always been a huge ally of ours. It seems like we're losing our allies left and right, and for us to ostricize the few hard-core allies that we have left, it simply makes NO sense to me at all?!

- Todd (05/24/11 9:22 AM)

Todd, India's change of heart towards us mostly has to do with how Obama has treated the country and Pakistan since taking office. Like I mentioned, they still practically revere Bush in India and we can still mend our fences with the country, but it all starts with taking a harder stance towards Pakistan.

- Matthew Cochrane (05/24/11 2:47 PM)

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