The past week has been filled with announcements and speculations on how Osama bin Laden was killed
and on Washington’s source of intelligence. After any operation of this
sort, the world is filled with speculation on sources and methods by
people who don’t know, and silence or dissembling by those who do.
Obfuscating on how intelligence was developed and on the specifics of
how an operation was carried out is an essential part of covert
operations. The precise process must be distorted to confuse opponents
regarding how things actually played out; otherwise, the enemy learns
lessons and adjusts. Ideally, the enemy learns the wrong lessons, and
its adjustments wind up further weakening it. Operational disinformation
is the final, critical phase of covert operations. So as interesting as
it is to speculate on just how the United States located bin Laden and
on exactly how the attack took place, it is ultimately not a fruitful
discussion. Moreover, it does not focus on the truly important question,
namely, the future of U.S.-Pakistani relations.
Posturing Versus a Genuine Breach
It is not inconceivable that Pakistan aided the United States in
identifying and capturing Osama bin Laden, but it is unlikely. This is
because the operation saw the already-tremendous tensions between the
two countries worsen rather than improve. The Obama administration let
it be known that it saw Pakistan as either incompetent or duplicitous
and that it deliberately withheld plans for the operation from the
Pakistanis. For their part, the Pakistanis made it clear that further
operations of this sort on Pakistani territory could see an
irreconcilable breach between the two countries. The attitudes of the
governments profoundly affected the views of politicians and the public,
attitudes that will be difficult to erase.
Posturing designed to hide Pakistani cooperation would be designed to
cover operational details, not to lead to significant breaches between
countries. 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.
A break between the United States and Pakistan holds significance for both sides. For Pakistan, it means the loss of an ally that could help Pakistan fend off its much larger neighbor to the east, India. For the United States, it means the loss of an ally in the war in Afghanistan.
Whether the rupture ultimately occurs, of course, depends on how deep
the tension goes. And that depends on what the tension is over, i.e.,
whether the tension ultimately merits the strategic rift. It also is a
question of which side is sacrificing the most. It is therefore
important to understand the geopolitics of U.S.-Pakistani relations
beyond the question of who knew what about bin Laden.
From Cold to Jihadist War
U.S. strategy in the Cold War included a religious component, namely, using religion to generate tension within the Communist bloc.
This could be seen in the Jewish resistance in the Soviet Union, in
Roman Catholic resistance in Poland and, of course, in Muslim resistance
to the Soviets in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, it took the form of
using religious Islamist militias to wage a guerrilla war against Soviet
occupation. A three-part alliance involving the Saudis, the Americans
and the Pakistanis fought the Soviets. The Pakistanis had the closest
relationships with the Afghan resistance due to ethnic and historical
bonds, and the Pakistani intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), had built close ties with the Afghans.
As frequently happens, the lines of influence ran both ways. The ISI
did not simply control Islamist militants, but instead many within the
ISI came under the influence of radical Islamist ideology. This reached
the extent that the ISI became a center of radical Islamism, not so much
on an institutional level as on a personal level: The case officers, as
the phrase goes, went native. As long as the U.S. strategy remained to
align with radical Islamism against the Soviets, this did not pose a
major problem. However, when the Soviet Union collapsed and the United
States lost interest in the future of Afghanistan, managing the
conclusion of the war fell to the Afghans and to the Pakistanis through
the ISI. In the civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal from
Afghanistan, the United States played a trivial role. It was the ISI in
alliance with the Taliban — a coalition of Afghan and international
Islamist fighters who had been supported by the United States, Saudi
Arabia and Pakistan — that shaped the future of Afghanistan.
The U.S.-Islamist relationship was an alliance of convenience for
both sides. It was temporary, and when the Soviets collapsed, Islamist
ideology focused on new enemies, the United States chief among them.
Anti-Soviet sentiment among radical Islamists soon morphed into
anti-American sentiment. This was particularly true after the Iraqi
Invasion of Kuwait and Desert Storm. The Islamists perceived the U.S.
occupation and violation of Saudi territorial integrity as a religious
breach. Therefore, at least some elements of international Islamism
focused on the United States; al Qaeda
was central among these elements. Al Qaeda needed a base of operations
after being expelled from Sudan, and Afghanistan provided the most
congenial home. In moving to Afghanistan and allying with the Taliban,
al Qaeda inevitably was able to greatly expand its links with Pakistan’s
ISI, which was itself deeply involved with the Taliban.
After 9/11, Washington demanded that the Pakistanis aid the United
States in its war against al Qaeda and the Taliban. For Pakistan, this
represented a profound crisis. On the one hand, Pakistan badly needed
the United States to support it against what it saw as its existential
enemy, India. On the other hand, Islamabad found it difficult to rupture
or control the intimate relationships, ideological and personal, that
had developed between the ISI and the Taliban, and by extension with al
Qaeda to some extent. In Pakistani thinking, breaking with the United
States could lead to strategic disaster with India. However,
accommodating the United States could lead to unrest, potential civil
war and even collapse by energizing elements of the ISI and supporters
of Taliban and radical Islamism in Pakistan.
The Pakistani Solution
The Pakistani solution was to appear to be doing everything possible
to support the United States in Afghanistan, with a quiet limit on what
that support would entail. That limit on support set by Islamabad was
largely defined as avoiding actions that would trigger a major uprising
in Pakistan that could threaten the regime. Pakistanis were prepared to
accept a degree of unrest in supporting the war but not to push things
to the point of endangering the regime.
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.
The Americans were, of course, completely aware of the Pakistani
limits and did not ultimately object to this arrangement. The United
States did not want a coup in Islamabad, nor did it want massive civil
unrest. The United States needed Pakistan on whatever terms the
Pakistanis could provide help. It needed the supply line through Pakistan from Karachi to the Khyber Pass.
And while it might not get complete intelligence from Pakistan, the
intelligence it did get was invaluable. Moreover, while the Pakistanis
could not close the Afghan Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan, they could
limit them and control their operation to some extent. The Americans
were as aware as the Pakistanis that the choice was between full and
limited cooperation, but could well be between limited and no
cooperation, because the government might well not survive full
cooperation. The Americans thus took what they could get.
Obviously, this relationship created friction. The Pakistani position
was that the United States had helped create this reality in the 1980s
and 1990s. The American position was that after 9/11, the price of U.S.
support involved the Pakistanis changing their policies. The Pakistanis
said there were limits. The Americans agreed, so the fight was about
defining the limits.
The Americans felt that the limit was support for al Qaeda. They felt
that whatever Pakistan’s relationship with the Afghan Taliban was,
support in suppressing al Qaeda, a separate organization, had to be
absolute. The Pakistanis agreed in principle but understood that the
intelligence on al Qaeda flowed most heavily from those most deeply
involved with radical Islamism. In others words, the very people who
posed the most substantial danger to Pakistani stability were also the
ones with the best intelligence on al Qaeda — and therefore, fulfilling
the U.S. demand in principle was desirable. In practice, it proved
difficult for Pakistan to carry out.
The Breakpoint and the U.S. Exit From Afghanistan
This proved the breakpoint between the two sides. The Americans
accepted the principle of Pakistani duplicity, but drew a line at al
Qaeda. The Pakistanis understood American sensibilities but didn’t want
to incur the domestic risks of going too far. This psychological
breakpoint cracked open on Osama bin Laden, the Holy Grail of American
strategy and the third rail of Pakistani policy.
Under normal circumstances, this level of tension of
institutionalized duplicity should have blown the U.S.-Pakistani
relationship apart, with the United States simply breaking with
Pakistan. It did not, and likely will not for a simple geopolitical
reason, one that goes back to the 1990s. In the 1990s, when the United
States no longer needed to support an intensive covert campaign in
Afghanistan, it depended on Pakistan to manage Afghanistan. Pakistan
would have done this anyway because it had no choice: Afghanistan was
Pakistan’s backdoor, and given tensions with India, Pakistan could not
risk instability in its rear. The United States thus did not have to ask
Pakistan to take responsibility for Afghanistan.
The United States is now looking for an exit from Afghanistan.
Its goal, the creation of a democratic, pro-American Afghanistan able
to suppress radical Islamism in its own territory, is unattainable with
current forces — and probably unattainable with far larger forces. Gen.
David Petraeus, the architect of the Afghan strategy, has been nominated
to become the head of the CIA. With Petraeus departing from the Afghan
theater, the door is open to a redefinition of Afghan strategy. Despite
Pentagon doctrines of long wars, the United States is not going to be in a position to engage in endless combat in Afghanistan.
There are other issues in the world that must be addressed. With bin
Laden’s death, a plausible (if not wholly convincing) argument can be
made that the mission in AfPak, as the Pentagon refers to the theater,
has been accomplished, and therefore the United States can withdraw.
No withdrawal strategy is conceivable without a viable Pakistan.
Ideally, Pakistan would be willing to send forces into Afghanistan to
carry out U.S. strategy. This is unlikely, as the Pakistanis don’t share
the American concern for Afghan democracy, nor are they prepared to try
directly to impose solutions in Afghanistan. At the same time, Pakistan
can’t simply ignore Afghanistan because of its own national security
issues, and therefore it will move to stabilize it.
The United States could break with Pakistan and try to handle things
on its own in Afghanistan, but the supply line fueling Afghan fighting
runs through Pakistan. The alternatives either would see the United
States become dependent on Russia — an equally uncertain line of supply —
or on the Caspian route, which is insufficient to supply forces.
Afghanistan is war at the end of the Earth for the United States, and to
fight it, Washington must have Pakistani supply routes.
The United States also needs Pakistan to contain, at least to some
extent, Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan. The United States is stretched
to the limit doing what it is doing in Afghanistan. Opening a new front
in Pakistan, a country of 180 million people, is well beyond the
capabilities of either forces in Afghanistan or forces in the U.S.
reserves. Therefore, a U.S. break with Pakistan threatens the logistical
foundation of the war in Afghanistan and poses strategic challenges
U.S. forces cannot cope with.
The American option might be to support a major crisis between
Pakistan and India to compel Pakistan to cooperate with the United
States. However, it is not clear that India is prepared to play another
round in the U.S. game with Pakistan. Moreover, creating a genuine
crisis between India and Pakistan could have two outcomes. The first
involves the collapse of Pakistan, which would create an India more
powerful than the United States might want. The second and more likely
outcome would see the creation of a unity government in Pakistan in
which distinctions between secularists, moderate Islamists and radical
Islamists would be buried under anti-Indian feeling. Doing all of this
to deal with Afghan withdrawal would be excessive, even if India played
along, and could well prove disastrous for Washington.
Ultimately, the United States cannot change its policy of the last 10
years. During that time, it has come to accept what support the
Pakistanis could give and tolerated what was withheld. U.S. dependence
on Pakistan so long as Washington is fighting in Afghanistan is
significant; the United States has lived with Pakistan’s multitiered
policy for a decade because it had to. Nothing in the capture of bin
Laden changes the geopolitical realities. So long as the United States
wants to wage — or end — a war in Afghanistan, it must have the support
of Pakistan to the extent that Pakistan is prepared to provide it. The
option of breaking with Pakistan because on some level it is acting in
opposition to American interests does not exist.
This is the ultimate contradiction in U.S. strategy in Afghanistan
and even the so-called war on terror as a whole. The United States has
an absolute opposition to terrorism and has waged a war in Afghanistan
on the questionable premise that the tactic of terrorism can be
defeated, regardless of source or ideology. Broadly fighting terrorism
requires the cooperation of the Muslim world, as U.S. intelligence and
power is inherently limited. The Muslim world has an interest in
containing terrorism, but not the absolute concern the United States
has. Muslim countries are not prepared to destabilize their countries in
service to the American imperative. This creates deeper tensions
between the United States and the Muslim world and increases the
American difficulty in dealing with terrorism — or with Afghanistan.
The United States must either develop the force and intelligence to
wage war without any assistance, which is difficult to imagine given the
size of the Muslim world and the size of the U.S. military, or it will
have to accept half-hearted support and duplicity. Alternatively, it
could accept that it will not win in Afghanistan and will not be able simply to eliminate terrorism. These are difficult choices, but the reality of Pakistan drives home that these, in fact, are the choices.
U.S.-Pakistani Relations Beyond Bin Laden is republished with permission of STRATFOR.