Washington The day before he suffered a fatal tear in his heart last December, a frustrated Richard Holbrooke confided to a colleague: The Obama administration had tried everything to convince Pakistan to crack down on terrorism, including threats and special-assistance packages, but none of it seemed to work. Why wasn’t Pakistan getting the message?
The question posed by Holbrooke in his final hours as U.S. representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan looms even larger now. Despite years of American requests that Pakistan dismantle al-Qaida and its allies, it turns out that Osama bin Laden had been hiding for six years near a military training academy two hours north of Islamabad.
A catalogue of these U.S. pleas, assembled from interviews with knowledgeable officials, makes disturbing reading. Washington has been passing the same message, through two administrations: The Pakistani military promises action, but hedges its bets; the U.S. pledges cooperation, but acts unilaterally. As the problem festers, mutual mistrust increases.
The story moves inexorably toward the U.S. raid on bin Laden’s compound, which ripped the veneer of cooperation. Repairing relations in the aftermath would require a degree of honesty and partnership that neither side seems able to muster. One key policymaker grimly predicts: “This comes to a bad end.”
Let’s start with the final months of the Bush administration: A sharp warning was delivered July 12, 2008, in Islamabad by Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Stephen R. Kappes, then deputy director of the CIA. The two warned that Sirajuddin Haqqani, a Taliban leader with links to Pakistani intelligence, knew about the activities of Arabs in al-Qaida. They issued a similar warning about Maulvi Nazir, a warlord in the Pakistani tribal areas who the U.S. believed had connections to both al-Qaida and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate.
Pakistani officials assured the American visitors that the Haqqani network “will not be provided with any support by any agency of Pakistan,” a source recalls. But U.S. officials believe the Haqqani network’s contacts with ISI continued. It remains the deadliest insurgent group in eastern Afghanistan.
Another warning came on Dec. 2, 2008, from Gen. Mike Hayden, then CIA director, a week after the Nov. 26 terrorist attack in Mumbai. Hayden warned Pakistani officials that there was “no doubt” the attack was the work of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Kashmiri separatist group with a “close nexus” to the ISI. He demanded that Pakistan close LeT training camps and dismantle its infrastructure. That never happened.
On Dec. 19, 2008, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice bluntly admonished a visiting Pakistani official: “There are people in ISI who know everything about LeT. They have the information. ... You have to make a strategic decision that association with terrorism has come to an end.”
The Obama administration proposed a broad alliance with Pakistan, in the hope that this would encourage better cooperation against terrorist groups. President Obama said in a Nov. 11, 2009, letter that the two nations should be “long-term strategic partners,” and that they should find “new and better ways to work together to disrupt” al-Qaida and other terrorists.
Gen. Jim Jones, then national security adviser, hand-delivered Obama’s letter. He warned orally that “the U.S. expects Pakistan to make an unequivocal commitment against terrorism.” The subtext was that the U.S. would strike al-Qaida with or without Pakistani support, including inside Pakistani territory.
Jones was back in Islamabad in May 2010 with another stern message. “If an attack against the U.S. or American interests takes place in Afghanistan it would be because Pakistan turned a blind eye towards some of these networks, even if it did nor cause or sponsor the attack,” Jones said, adding bluntly: “We still do not have clear commitments from Pakistan regarding some of these organizations. We are not certain if Pakistan rejects all forms of terrorism.”
So it has gone, month to month, administration to administration. America keeps warning, and Pakistan keeps promising cooperation, but the impasse continued up to the moment the stealth helicopters landed in the compound in Abbottabad.
How do you deal with a country that is caught in a lie? It’s tempting to say the U.S. should cut off aid to Pakistan and let them sort out their own problems. But we tried that once before in the 1980s, to protest their secret acquisition of nuclear weapons, and it didn’t work out very well. Truly, this is Pakistan’s problem, and the United States should work with its allies to send a common message: Pakistan cannot achieve its national ambitions until it gets its head straight about terrorism.