Late last month, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said there was no evidence that Pakistani officials had known that Osama bin Laden lived undetected blocks from the country's equivalent to West Point. But after the al-Qaeda leader was killed in Abbottabad on May 1, others were skeptical. "How could they not know?" said Sen. John Kerry (D. - Mass.). "Did nobody have some questions about who the hell was living behind those walls?"
In the war on terrorism, where does Pakistan's loyalty lie? If this nation is our ally, why can't we trust it? To answer these questions, let's first tackle some widespread misconceptions about a troubled country torn between the Taliban and the West.
1. Pakistan is a U.S. ally in the war on terrorism.
Pakistan pursues only its national interests — or whatever its military high command decides is in the county's national interests. The security establishment likes to work with the United States when possible and certainly likes receiving U.S. aid, but its perception of Pakistan's interests always comes first.
During the Cold War, Washington considered Pakistan an ally against the Soviet Union. Under President Ayub Khan in the 1960s and President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq in the 1980s, the United States gave Pakistan substantial aid — $3.2 billion in a five-year package in the early '80s, or about $8 billion in 2011 dollars. Yet, Pakistan followed its own path. When Ayub went to war with India in 1965 and Pakistan launched its savage crackdown in East Bengal in 1971, Washington wasn't consulted.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, Pakistan has sometimes helped the United States, and sometimes not. Though some U.S. legislators believe that its intelligence community sheltered bin Laden, Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) arrested al-Qaeda leaders Khalid Sheik Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh and helped foil terrorist plots by Pakistanis living in Britain. Though they don't want to promote anti-Western terrorism, Pakistan's generals do want to cultivate the Afghan Taliban for an expected civil war with anti-Pakistani Tajiks backed by India. Our enemies might turn out to be their friends.
2. Pakistan is an ally of the Taliban.
Just as Pakistan isn't an unconditional ally in the West's war on terrorism, it isn't always in the Taliban's corner, either. Pakistan's military gives the Afghan Taliban shelter, but it does not provide the fighters with sophisticated weapons such as antitank rockets or antiaircraft missiles. If Pakistan were fully on the Taliban's side, the Taliban would be much more militarily effective.
The Taliban doesn't trust the Pakistanis. "Pakistan is so famous for treachery that it is said that they can get milk from a bull," wrote Abdul Salam Zaeef, who was the ambassador to Pakistan for Afghanistan's Taliban government until 2001. "They have two tongues in one mouth, and two faces on one head, so that they can speak everybody's language. They use everybody, deceive everybody."
And this suspicion runs both ways. Pakistan's military remembers that the Afghan Taliban spurned its advice before 9/11, refusing to moderate its radical ideology and expel al-Qaeda. Pakistani generals disapprove of Islamist revolution — whether in Afghanistan or their own country — but most back the Afghan Taliban because they think they have no choice, given the bitter anti-Pakistan sentiment of powerful forces within Hamid Karzai's government and India's links to those forces.
3. Islamist revolution is coming to Pakistan.
In a 2010 Pew Research Center poll, less than a fifth of Pakistanis viewed the Taliban favorably. The masses do not want Islamist revolution, and the wealthy clans that dominate Pakistani politics are a strong anti-revolutionary force. And, no matter what people think, Pakistan's military has proved — by launching counteroffensives that cleared the Taliban from the Swat Valley and other areas — that it can defeat Islamist insurgency.
The Taliban could gain a meaningful political foothold in Pakistan only after a large-scale military mutiny. If the United States launched sustained ground raids into Pakistan and generals ordered their soldiers not to resist, Pakistani army regulars would feel that their honor was compromised and might flock to the Taliban. The unilateral U.S. raid to kill bin Laden did embarrass the military and garnered some criticism from the Pakistani public. But while Islamist extremists have penetrated the Pakistani military, only U.S. missteps could bring soldiers to rebel and plunge Pakistan into revolution.
4. Massive U.S. aid lets Washington dictate Pakistani policy.
The United States has given $1 billion per year to Pakistan's military since 2001, but civilian aid is limited. Even if the $7.5 billion promised over five years by the recent Kerry-Lugar bill were disbursed — unlikely, given conditions attached requiring that Pakistan fight extremist groups and remain at peace with India — the aid would probably be outweighed by economic losses from terrorism and insurgency. Pakistan's government estimates that these losses were more than $18 billion in 2010 alone.
Islamabad also has an invaluable bargaining chip: Supply routes for U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan run through Pakistan. Without Pakistan's support, the United States would have to send supplies across Central Asia, doing deals with nasty, unstable governments such as Uzbekistan's and making major concessions to Russia. In addition, Pakistan is one of China's few allies — and Pakistani officials believe that this economic powerhouse could offer financial assistance that matches America's if asked. The United States is in no position to issue diktats.
5. Pakistan, not Afghanistan, is the front in the war on terrorism.
Given: Bin Laden found refuge in Pakistan. Given: With almost 200 million people, Pakistan has about six times the population of Afghanistan and contains numerous anti-Western extremist groups. Given: Some of these groups have battled India at Pakistan's behest, including Lashkar-i-Taiba, sponsor of 2008's terrorist attacks in Mumbai. And given: The large Pakistani diaspora in Britain and Canada has provided a base for terrorist attacks in the West.
But none of this means that the United States should pursue more aggressive policies against Pakistan to win the war on terrorism. Pakistan's enormous population, nuclear weapons and 500,000-strong military limit American options. Any U.S. action that endangered the stability of the Pakistani government would be insane. Nukes could fall into the hands of terrorists, along with huge quantities of conventional arms. Still embroiled in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, President Obama has no choice but to work with Pakistan and its military, deeply uncomfortable though this relationship is. If we made this nation the front of a new war, it's a war we would lose.