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Caught in a tangled web

What the Snowden leaks say about US-Pakistan relations.

Written by Daniel Markey |
September 18, 2013 2:45:40 am

What the Snowden leaks say about US-Pakistan relations.

Like the WikiLeaks scandal before it,The Washington Post’s revelations earlier this month about the massive US intelligence operations directed at Pakistan will cause heartburn on both sides. Yet,most of the Post’s recently unveiled secrets are unremarkable. The real story here — and one that could too easily be missed by readers caught up in a few tantalising hints about operational details of US spycraft — has to do with the deep contradictions and complexities that lie at the heart of the US relationship with Pakistan.

Few readers could be surprised to hear that the US intelligence community places Pakistan — a land of nuclear weapons,terrorist networks and routine political instability — among its highest priorities. Pakistanis need no classified documents to convince them that the US is snooping and interfering in their country. With the Raymond Davis incident,drone strikes and the raid on Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound,this has been an open secret for years.

US agencies have good reasons to stay focused on Pakistan,even after the war in Afghanistan winds down,and even though al-Qaeda is but a shell of its pre-9/11 self. Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is growing,and the military seems particularly eager to build tactical (small,short range) warheads that are relatively harder to track and easier to steal. Leaders of homegrown terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Toiba,the group that orchestrated the November 2008 commando-style attack on Mumbai,hide in plain sight,making a mockery of US bounties on their heads.

And although Pakistan’s newly elected civilian government seems relatively serious and reform-minded,violence inside Pakistan and along the border with India has recently spiked. The economy sputters along on life-support from the IMF. As always in Pakistan,the balance of power between elected politicians and the generals who have so often ruled the country by diktat remains uncertain. Finally,Pakistan’s sheer size — nearly 200 million people and growing — puts it into an entirely different category from places like Yemen,Afghanistan,Iraq or Syria. Over the next two decades,Pakistan’s numbers will grow by 85 million: more than the total population of present-day Iran.

Of course,we knew this before any leak of classified intelligence reports. But the Post’s story also sheds light on the tangled web of US-Pakistan relations and the compromises they force on US policymakers. That story is best illustrated by the issue of extrajudicial killings.

In 2009,threatened by an insurgency that was starting to spill out of the tribal hinterlands and into more densely settled areas,Pakistan’s military reluctantly went on the offensive. US officials,including then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton,lauded the effort as evidence that Pakistan’s leaders were finally coming to terms with the existential threat posed by the militants. Washington smartly buttressed this rhetorical support with military hardware and financial aid to help Pakistan wage its war.

Then in 2010,stories of summary executions by the Pakistani military came to light. American policymakers were aware of the public reports,apparently confirmed by secret communications intercepts. The news could have led US policymakers to curtail military assistance to Pakistan,but here Washington chose to walk a fine line: it quietly severed relationships with specific Pakistani military units deemed responsible for abuses and rationalised that choice by citing the greater good of supporting Pakistan’s fight against the insurgency.

That tough call would have been eased if Pakistani officials had shown a genuine interest in defending human rights,perhaps by establishing new anti-terror laws and tribunals to mete out speedy — and legitimate — justice to insurgents. But then comes the next,excruciating turn of the screw: US spies discovered that officers inside Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate were actually plotting to kill Asma Jahangir,one of Pakistan’s top human rights advocates. Jahangir is precisely the type of person who should have been involved in any serious judicial reform process.

In other words,the billions of dollars Washington sent to Pakistan’s military probably helped on the battlefield,but it did little or nothing to counter the state’s worst authoritarian tendencies. As we have witnessed in countries the world over,state repression feeds public anger,which in turn feeds insurgency. Faced with the unenviable choice between violent instability and repression,US policymakers chose the latter.

This is but one example of how the US finds itself stuck between bad options in Pakistan. However unpleasant,this is the real lesson from the latest leaks. It helps to explain why Pakistan is and will remain at the centre of US covert operations,even as the White House publicly claims it is committed to a “long-term partnership with Pakistan… based on mutual interests and mutual respect.”

Markey is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations,Washington DC,and author of the forthcoming‘No Exit from Pakistan: America’s Tortured Relationship with Islamabad’

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