A phony alliance

In all the rhetoric—some of it heated—about Pakistan-U.S. relations following the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, George Friedman finally addresses my suspicion, writing that “Posturing designed to hide Pakistani cooperation would be designed to cover operational details, not to lead to significant breaches between countries.”[1]

It’s all been really rather confusing, and the realization that even if Pakistan and the U.S. are playing this out as allegedly previously agreed,[2] that neither side is likely to be telling the complete truth really doesn’t help. But Friedman writes,

The relationship between the United States and Pakistan ultimately is far more important than the details of how Osama bin Laden was captured, but both sides have created a tense atmosphere that they will find difficult to contain. One would not sacrifice strategic relationships for the sake of operational security. Therefore, we have to assume that the tension is real and revolves around the different goals of Pakistan and the United States.[3]

The Guardian article points to an agreement allegedly made with Pakistan’s former President Pervez Musharraf:

Under its terms, Pakistan would allow US forces to conduct a unilateral raid inside Pakistan in search of Bin Laden, his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the al-Qaida No3. Afterwards, both sides agreed, Pakistan would vociferously protest the incursion. . . .

A senior Pakistani official said it had been struck under Musharraf and renewed by the army during the “transition to democracy” – a six-month period from February 2008 when Musharraf was still president but a civilian government had been elected.

Referring to the assault on Bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound, the official added: “As far as our American friends are concerned, they have just implemented the agreement.”

The former US official said the Pakistani protests of the past week were the “public face” of the deal. “We knew they would deny this stuff.”

The agreement is consistent with Pakistan’s unspoken policy towards CIA drone strikes in the tribal belt, which was revealed by the WikiLeaks US embassy cables last November. In August 2008, Gilani reportedly told a US official: “I don’t care if they do it, as long as they get the right people. We’ll protest in the National Assembly and then ignore it.”[4]

It’s worth observing that the Guardian is relying on unidentified sources. A lot of good information comes that way, but it should be confirmed with sources that are willing to go on the record. And in this case, not only is that confirmation absent, but we are seeing instead—as Friedman observes—a disconfirmation in the form of increased hostility. Indeed, “the public outing of the CIA station chief here [in Pakistan] threatened on Monday to deepen the rift between the United States and Pakistan, with U.S. officials saying they believed the disclosure had been made deliberately by Pakistan’s main spy agency.”[5] And,

About 10 days before the raid, Mr. Obama reviewed the plans and pressed his commanders as to whether they were taking along enough forces to fight their way out if the Pakistanis arrived on the scene and tried to interfere with the operation.

That resulted in the decision to send two more helicopters carrying additional troops. These followed the two lead Black Hawk helicopters that carried the actual assault team. While there was no confrontation with the Pakistanis, one of those backup helicopters was ultimately brought in to the scene of the raid when a Black Hawk was damaged while making a hard landing.[6]

To be fair, this story, in the New York Times, also relies heavily on unidentified sources. But it is consistent with a plainly deteriorating relationship that probably never has been a true alliance. Juan Cole, who accepts the Guardian story at face value, acknowledges that “nearly 60 percent of Pakistanis think the US is their enemy,” but sees as inconsistent that “64% of Pakistanis say [they] want better relations with the US.”[7] This is not hard to understand when Pakistanis, beset by drone attacks that have exacted a heavy civilian toll, may see the world’s only remaining superpower as something comparable to a force of nature; of course they want better relations, which they undoubtedly take to mean a less imperial and more cooperative partnership.

Musharraf, it should be remembered, also alleged that “the US threatened to bomb Pakistan ‘back to the stone age’ unless it joined the fight against al-Qaeda.”[8] And while Friedman points out that the U.S. used religion against the “godless” Soviets, creating an alliance between the Taliban and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) that radicalized some members of the latter,[9] and Robert Scheer reminds us that Osama bin Laden was a monster of our own creation,[10] our more recent adventures have looked like yet another crusade against Islam,[11] a point which was not lost on Osama bin Laden[12] or on those who supported him.

Simply put, this so-called alliance between Pakistan and the United States was forced by the latter upon the former. As civilians have suffered from cross-border operations in a nearly ten-year old war in Afghanistan that has long spilled across a poorly-defined border into Pakistan, and as Pakistanis see the saber-rattling against Iran—another neighbor—and doubt the fealty of a U.S. in an alliance against its arch-enemy India, there can be little doubt that it is a phony alliance.

Fig. 1: Greater Hindustan, based on Angana Chatterji's description in Violent Gods.

Here, I think Friedman—and he’s far from alone—gets it wrong, counting the U.S. as a potential ally for Pakistan against India.[13] I simply don’t see that as plausible. And if Pakistanis are anything like the conspiracy-mongers they are so often made out to be, it seems unreasonable to believe that they see it as plausible either. They’re playing along for foreign aid—particularly military aid—at the same time they profoundly fear that the U.S. will seize Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.[14] Indeed, in denouncing the raid, “[Prime Minister Yousuf Raza] Gilani made a point of starting with effusive praise for his country’s northern neighbour,” China, which he labeled as an “all-weather friend.”[15]

For all the sound and fury, if the U.S. is going to continue its fight in Afghanistan, it needs Pakistan much more than Pakistan needs the U.S. And Pakistan shares a strategic interest with its “all-weather friend,” in containing India, whose potent Hindutva movement—which embraces Nazi ideology—claims a vast portion of south and central Asia as a Hindu homeland (figure 1).[16]

The U.S. has gotten away with its raid this time. But this is a broken alliance whose plausibility is diminishing. As Friedman puts it,

The Pakistanis thus walked a tightrope between demands they provide intelligence on al Qaeda and Taliban activities and permit U.S. operations in Pakistan on one side and the internal consequences of doing so on the other. The Pakistanis’ policy was to accept a degree of unrest to keep the Americans supporting Pakistan against India, but only to a point. So, for example, the government purged the ISI of its overt supporters of radial Islamism, but it did not purge the ISI wholesale nor did it end informal relations between purged intelligence officers and the ISI. Pakistan thus pursued a policy that did everything to appear to be cooperative while not really meeting American demands.[17]

Friedman sees the war in Afghanistan as exceeding U.S. capacity and the killing of Osama bin Laden as a not-entirely plausible excuse for getting out. He sees as impossible for Muslim nations—not just Pakistan—to adopt an absolute opposition to “terrorism.”[18] I think in this, he reveals a realist (as in realpolitick) bias. As Ronald Reagan so ineptly revealed by calling the Nicaraguan Contras “freedom fighters,” “terrorism” is a label applied to enemies. A bumper sticker explained it as what a big army calls a little one. It is an arbitrary term that masks a violent refusal to reckon with legitimate grievances, such as against U.S. support for Israel against Palestinians.

U.S. security lies not in the policies of the last several decades that have so antagonized so many around the world, but in peace, and not in the negative peace of the absence of war, but in a positive peace of justice.[19] What we’re seeing in the breakdown of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship and in the futility of the war in Afghanistan (and Pakistan) is the ultimate exhaustion of profoundly misguided—as well as unjust—policies. The question for the U.S. will be whether it can adapt to this and other realities.

  1. [1]George Friedman, “U.S.-Pakistani Relations Beyond Bin Laden,” Stratfor, May 10, 2011, http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/20110509-us-pakistani-relations-beyond-bin-laden
  2. [2]Declan Walsh, “Osama bin Laden mission agreed in secret 10 years ago by US and Pakistan,” Guardian, May 9, 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/may/09/osama-bin-laden-us-pakistan-deal
  3. [3]Friedman, “U.S.-Pakistani Relations Beyond Bin Laden.”
  4. [4]Walsh, “Osama bin Laden mission agreed in secret 10 years ago by US and Pakistan.
  5. [5]Karin Brulliard and Greg Miller, “Pakistanis disclose name of CIA operative,” Washington Post, May 9, 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/pakistani-pm-failure-to-locate-bin-laden-not-incompetence-or-complicity/2011/05/09/AFKg0nYG_story.html
  6. [6]Eric Schmitt, Thom Shanker and David E. Sanger, “U.S. Was Braced for Fight With Pakistanis in Bin Laden Raid,” New York Times, May 9, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/10/world/asia/10intel.html
  7. [7]Juan Cole, “Secret Pakistani Deal with US on Bin Laden,” Informed Comment, May 10, 2011, http://www.juancole.com/2011/05/secret-pakistani-deal-with-us-on-bin-laden.html
  8. [8]BBC News, “US ‘threatened to bomb’ Pakistan,” September 22, 2006, http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/south_asia/5369198.stm
  9. [9]Friedman, “U.S.-Pakistani Relations Beyond Bin Laden.”
  10. [10]Robert Scheer, “A Monster of Our Own Creation,” Truthdig, May 4, 2011, http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/a_monster_of_our_own_creation_20110504/#
  11. [11]Karen DeYoung and Greg Jaffe, “U.S. ‘secret war’ expands globally as Special Operations forces take larger role,” Washington Post, June 4, 2010, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/06/03/AR2010060304965.html; Jeremy Scahill, “Obama’s Expanding Covert Wars,” Nation, June 4, 2010, http://www.thenation.com/blog/obamas-expanding-covert-wars; Scott Shane, Mark Mazzetti, and Robert F. Worth, “Secret Assault on Terrorism Widens on Two Continents,” New York Times, August 14, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/15/world/15shadowwar.html
  12. [12]Osama bin Laden, interview by Tayseer Alouni, “Transcript of Bin Laden’s October interview,” trans. by CNN, February 5, 2002, http://articles.cnn.com/2002-02-05/world/binladen.transcript_1_incitement-fatwas-al-qaeda-organization?_s=PM:asiapcf
  13. [13]Friedman, “U.S.-Pakistani Relations Beyond Bin Laden.”
  14. [14]Susanne Koelbl, “A Forced Marriage Plagued by Ever-Deepening Distrust,” Spiegel, May 7, 2011, http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,761190,00.html
  15. [15]Graeme Smith, “Pakistan’s praise of China an angry message to U.S.,” Globe and Mail, May 9, 2011, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/asia-pacific/pakistans-praise-of-china-an-angry-message-to-us/article2016012/?utm_medium=Feeds%3A%20RSS%2FAtom&utm_source=Home&utm_content=2016012
  16. [16]Angana P. Chatterji, Violent Gods: Hindu Nationalism in India’s Present: Narratives from Orissa (Gurgaon, India: Three Essays Collective, 2009); Arundhati Roy, Field Notes on Democracy (Chicago: Haymarket, 2009).
  17. [17]Friedman, “U.S.-Pakistani Relations Beyond Bin Laden.”
  18. [18]Friedman, “U.S.-Pakistani Relations Beyond Bin Laden.”
  19. [19]David P. Barash and Charles P. Webel, Peace and Conflict Studies (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2002).

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