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No surprises in Pakistan

Carlotta Gall’s book reveals nothing not already known about Pakistan’s collusion with violent extremists.

BY: Daniel Markey

Carlotta Gall’s book reveals nothing not already known about Pakistan’s collusion with violent extremists.

Last month, The New York Times ran an excerpt from reporter Carlotta Gall’s new book with the blockbuster accusation that Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence directorate (ISI) ran a special desk “assigned to handle bin Laden”. In other words, the Pakistani state was not merely negligent, or even incompetent, in its post-9/11 counterterror operations; it was complicit in aiding and abetting America’s number one enemy, the world’s most notorious terrorist.

Does Gall’s story matter? At one level, of course it does. Gall’s allegations strengthen the growing chorus in Washington that would rather treat Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism than a “frontline ally in the war on terror”. Politically speaking, the United States simply cannot continue to provide billions of dollars in assistance to a state that knowingly harboured Osama bin Laden.

But that’s where the complicating factors come in. The first problem is that Gall’s case is hardly irrefutable. It hinges, first and foremost, on a conversation she had with an unnamed insider source. Gall adds that the conversation was consistent with conclusions drawn by unnamed US officials, and that another Pakistani source told her the then-ISI chief, Lt Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha, was aware of bin Laden’s whereabouts. Gall also writes that during his stay in Pakistan, bin Laden was in touch with several important terrorists with longstanding ties to the ISI, including Qari Saifullah Akhtar of al-Qaeda and Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, the founder of Lashkar-e-Toiba. She observes that these communications were probably known to the ISI.

Gall makes reasonable claims, but until she — or someone else — offers proof beyond anonymous (mainly Pakistani) sources, there will be room for doubt on the bin Laden case. As CNN reporter and longtime bin Laden watcher, Peter Bergen, observes, many other journalists have tried, and failed, to turn up a smoking gun on Pakistan’s official complicity. Bergen’s interviews with US officials lead him to conclude that Pakistan’s leaders seemed more befuddled than nefarious, at least when it came to bin Laden’s long residence in Abbottabad. Furthermore, given the leakiness of the US intelligence community in recent years (think
of WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden, for starters), wouldn’t it be surprising that Washington could keep the secret of Pakistan’s complicity this long?

Yet the more important reason Gall’s story will not be a gamechanger is that, for all practical purposes, Pakistan’s persistent support to and collusion with violent extremists is no secret. Indeed, as I argue in my own book, No Exit from Pakistan, Pakistan’s passive and active support to a range of terrorist and militant organisations has long been the single most important threat to the foundations of deeper cooperation between Islamabad and Washington.

For good reason, US officials simply do not trust Pakistan. If they did, there would have been no need for the CIA to send operatives (including the now-infamous Raymond Davis) into Pakistan without the ISI’s knowledge; no need for President Obama not to share plans of the Abbottabad operation with his Pakistani counterparts; no need for Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, to testify before Congress in 2011 that the Haqqani Network is a “veritable arm” of the ISI.

Gall’s story, in the end, reinforces the reasons for US mistrust. The longer this mistrust stands, it will be increasingly difficult for US policymakers to justify cooperation with Pakistan. This is especially true as NATO forces withdraw from Afghanistan, since the most immediate need for cooperation with Pakistan in order to maintain supporting supply routes will dry up.

And yet, the United States has deeper and longer-term concerns about Pakistan than even getting to the bottom of the truth about bin Laden or prosecuting the war in Afghanistan. These concerns begin with Pakistan’s expanding nuclear arsenal and the long-term trajectory of the state that manages it. Pakistan’s future will hinge on wider political and socio-economic factors as well as the decisions made by its civilian and military leaders. A country of 180 million people, likely to be 300 million by mid-century, that borders India, China, Iran and the Arabian Sea will matter to the US, no matter what it did or did not do with bin Laden. And however badly off Pakistan looks today, US policymakers appreciate that it could grow far worse, either because it could take an increasingly hostile stance towards the West, or because it could fall into such ruin as to be disastrously unsalvageable.

This reality leaves Washington stuck in a familiar bind, with exasperated policymakers returning, time and again, to seek out opportunities for cooperation with Islamabad on narrow points of common interest, and to encourage economic and political stability wherever possible, using US military and civilian assistance as incentives, leverage, and support. All the while, Washington will also tackle immediate security threats through unilateral military and intelligence operations and, if it is smart, develop plans and capabilities to do more of the same for decades to come.

This is hardly a satisfactory, much less popular, approach. Gall’s article will make it even less popular than it already was. But, for better or worse, the US game with Pakistan remains the same.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, New York

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