The pull within Pakistan’s government between the officials who consider themselves in line with the U.S. and others who spiritually and politically ally with the Taliban and extremist forces has come to a head in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s demise. Pakistan has gone from being the United States’ number one ally in our declared war against terrorism to being perhaps the most disloyal and unstable nation the U.S. ever gave 4.5 billion dollars a year to.
Indeed, that represents the largest single share of American government dollars given directly to any foreign government last year, and Pakistan was the recipient. But despite being our nominal military ally, Pakistan has indeed become American foreign policy problem number one. Pakistan is a country pulled in two directions–most of its officials toward the United States, a select few toward terrorist groups–and the U.S. is giving heaps of money to all of them.
Senator John Kerry, in Pakistan as a government envoy, spoke to the New York Times about both countries needing to make “fundamental choices” about their partnership. A nation cannot pledge to be “America’s number one ally in the War on Terror” and then have elements of its intelligence force harbor Osama bin Laden. Indeed it is very likely that members of General Pasha’s very own intelligence agency–the Pakistani ISI, or Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate–knew of bin Laden’s residence just outside Islamabad, and actively harbored or at least tolerated his existence there.
The absolute top officials in Pakistan’s civilian government, armed with nuclear weapons, realize the inherent instability of letting terrorists get too close; these Pakistani officials are almost uniformly good friends of the United States. But many high- and middle-ranking military and intelligence officers do not harbor the same sympathies toward the west as those who side spiritually with the United States in its quest for superiority over Islamic extremism.
And although we have uncovered no connecting evidence in bin Laden’s trove, it has become accepted inside the beltway that elements of Pakistan’s military and intelligence services knew of bin Laden’s sheltering in Abottobad or even harbored or funded it. The New York Times wrote on Sunday that U.S. intelligence “believe the top leadership of [Pakistan] was genuinely surprised about bin Laden’s whereabouts… But they strongly suspect… the [Pakistani] military… and I.S.I., the main intelligence service, were aware [of bin Laden].” Hardly an alliance worth billions of dollars.
One of the ‘big sticks’ hanging over the head of the Pakistanis is the prospect that–within the trove of information and files found by U.S. forces in bin Laden’s compound currently being sifted through at CIA Headquarters–there is solid evidence of Pakistani being complicit in bin Laden’s harboring. No matter at what level of their government or intelligence services, any specific evidence of this would be horrible for Pakistan. It would mean almost certainly a loss of American military aid, which would be a terrible blow to a country that, no matter how softly it treats some terrorists, desperately needs U.S. money keep jihadists working inside its own borders from destabilizing its government.
Political differences among those within the Pakistani government and military have not led to a difference in opinion over American money–over $20 billion, in fact, since September 11, 2001. There are many within the U.S. intelligence community who argue bin Laden may have been sequestered by elements of Pakistani I.S.I. simply for his absence to be an excuse to receive more American military money.
Either way, it is time for the United States, understandably reviled for frequently taking unnecessarily hard lines with other countries, to finally take a hard line that is richly deserved. Pakistan must clearly and uniformly side with the values of the Enlightenment and clearly renounce the medieval beliefs of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, in all branches of their government military and civilian and from top to bottom.
It is not about a Bush-style “us or them” ultimatum: it is a simple choice between democracy and autocracy. The top Pakistani suits must decide which world they ally themselves with: the world of the United States and of democracy, of the Arab Spring and its young people cheering for secularization and freedom all across the Middle East, or the religiously totalitarian world which by last month had shrunk to a dream in one grey-bearded man’s head, hidden in a high-walled compound on the outskirts of Islamabad?
Abraham Lincoln once said that “A house divided cannot stand.” Despite the cultural differences between our countries, Pakistan’s government as a whole would do well to heed the words of this western nation’s greatest wartime leader. It is time for the leaders of that nation to stop playing this game of chicken with the United States. It is a time for choosing. They must clean house or face an uncertain and unstable future.
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