Can we fix our Pakistan problem?
Pakistan: With Friends Like These…
Seymour Hersh’s LRB scoop on the execution of Osama bin Laden – too hot, apparently, for the New Yorker to handle – is a persuasive and unnerving re-write of the Obama White House account. It was Pakistani spooks, not our CIA, who ran Osama to ground – more than five years before American intelligence learned he was under a comfortable sort of house arrest in Abbottabad. The Navy Seals who carried out the raid that killed Osama in 2011 probably didn’t know that Pakistan’s top brass and spymasters were helping in the shadows, to the extent of dropping their usual air alert against swooping US helicopters.
The sharpest point of the Hersh account comes in the demonstration of Pakistan’s “double game”– which must always be “plausibly deniable”– with its US patron. Pakistan’s army intelligence was in effect holding Osama bin Laden for trade with the Americans when the price was right and the politics was urgent. But what a strange stink comes off this misalliance – this miserable marriage – between the US and Pakistan.
“This is an absurd relationship on both sides,” says our in-studio authority, Adil Najam, trained in Lahore, now dean of Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Affairs. “The Sy Hersh story is the perfect metaphor for the US-Pakistan relationship and the absurdity of it. Why? Because nothing that can be said or heard about it can or should be believed… It’s not about the details. What he’s really pointing out in stark ways…is: This is not a friendship. It is not an alliance…”
I would question whether any of [the US’s anti-terror partnerships] are alliances. The real imperialist powers – the British! – never called India their ally… They were much more honest about it. They said, “you’re a dominion.” And in some ways, I think maybe we need a little more honesty in this….
Carlotta Gall, the long-time New York Times correspondent between Kabul and Islamabad, is telling us that much of Hersh’s alternative history checks outs. Osama bin Laden regarded Pakistan as friendly territory and, in Abbottabad, a safe haven. He had to beware of official betrayal sooner or later, but admonished his followers not to attack “the mother ship.” Pakistan’s military returned the courtesy, Ms. Gall observed on our air:
One intelligence officer, years ago, told me [bin Laden] was a protege of Pakistan….I think the Pakistanis perhaps didn’t mind that he was always aiming his attacks to America. They saw him as something useful for their own reasons. And that’s what’s astonishing, that they could be an ally — a major non-NATO ally after all — winning billions of dollars over this last decade from America and yet they could be hiding the top target of the American war.
…America knew Pakistan was playing a double game… And at what cost? Thousands of Western soldiers died, over 2,000 American soldiers died there, and, by my count, tens of thousands of Afghans have died since 2001. The length and the horror of this war in Afghanistan was not necessary, and I think a lot of that happened on America’s watch when they knowingly were not confronting Pakistan about its involvement and stopping it and, meanwhile, were funding billions to the Pakistani military. And that very strange double-handed policy is very weird and to be condemned.
Fawaz Gerges, our biographer of terrorism, says that drawing American military forces into the back of beyond was the core of Al Qaeda’s strategy and its incredible success:
When the history of the global wars on terror is written…the question is not going to be why the United States invaded Iraq, why the United States invaded Afghanistan. The question that will basically fascinate historians is why the American system of checks and balances failed after 9/11? Why? Because the American perspective was blinded by dust, by pain, by fear, by pride, and by revenge. And you have a small group of ideologues…hijack American foreign policy that basically brought us to today.
There’s more here from our friend Muhammad Idrees Ahmad on the pain for Pakistan, which has taken more casualties from the war for Afghanistan than any other nation. Also, from Ayesha Jalal of Tufts University, the master historian of the India-Pakistan partition. She joins us from her hometown Lahore to speak of an almost empty “operational relationship” between the US and Pakistan. The better future for Pakistan, she suggests, will be with investment-ready China.
Leave a comment and let us know what you think.
New York Times North Africa correspondent, former Afghanistan bureau chief, author of The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014
Muhammad Idrees Ahmad is a Pakistani scholar now based in Scotland, commentator at Pulse, author of The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War. Ayesha Jalal is professor of history at Tufts University. Her new book on Saadat Hasan Manto (1912-1955), arguably the all-time star of Pakistani letters, is called The Pity of Partition.
Professor of Middle East Politics & International Relations, author of The Rise and Fall of Al Qaeda
Dean of the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University, formerly vice-chancellor at Pakistan's premier research university, the Lahore University of Management Sciences.
Seymour Hersh, The London Review of Books
Hersh pulls on the bin Laden thread and finds that most everything that seemed off about the 2011 raid – How could he be hiding right under our ally's nose? — had to do with a secret Pakistani tip and a hastily-revised cover story. Many correspondents chased those leads over the last four years, but Hersh ventures to spin another tale about the highest levels of American power, believe it or not:
[Obama's] principled stand on behalf of the proposed nuclear agreement with Iran says much, as does his decision to operate without the support of the conservative Republicans in Congress. High-level lying nevertheless remains the modus operandi of US policy, along with secret prisons, drone attacks, Special Forces night raids, bypassing the chain of command, and cutting out those who might say no.
Carlotta Gall, The New York Times Magazine
Carlotta Gall, the Times's Pakistan correspondent for 12 years, was one of those reporters working to reconcile the bin Laden killing with what she knew of Pakistan's double dealing and village-to-village gossip about the Al Qaeda chief. Gall's account of the bin Laden intrigue last spring included most of the reports Hersh showcases, but she sees the episode as part of a bigger story of America mismanaging its alliances and its war:
[Pakistan's strategy is] to make a show of cooperation with the American fight against terrorism while covertly abetting and even coordinating Taliban, Kashmiri and foreign Qaeda-linked militants. The linchpin in this two-pronged and at times apparently oppositional strategy is the ISI. It’s through that agency that Pakistan’s true relationship to militant extremism can be discerned — a fact that the United States was slow to appreciate, and later refused to face directly, for fear of setting off a greater confrontation with a powerful Muslim nation.
Owen Bennett-Jones, BBC World Service
This intense radio examination of the US-Pakistan connection ran while the smoke was still clearing over Abbottabad. Presenter Owen Bennett-Jones (long the BBC's man in Islamabad, and a recent novelist of Pakistan) introduces the geopolitics and the elite players, then lingers with the civilians caught in the cross-fire.
Tim Craig, The Washington Post
The US-Pakistan relationship peaked twice: during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the opening years of George W. Bush's global war on terror. In each case, Pakistani leaders reaped American gifts and dragged along a skeptical civilian population. Now, after 14 years of war and US ambivalence, both the elites and the street are fed up and weighing other options:
For much of its history, Pakistan has been an ally of the United States, while Russia had stronger ties to India, even backing it during that country’s 1971 war with Pakistan. But now that most NATO troops have left next-door Afghanistan — and the Pakistani army is straining to overcome Islamist militants on its western border — officials here fear that the United States’ regional interest is tilting toward India, Pakistan’s eastern neighbor and archrival.