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Defense / Analysis

The Two Faces of Pakistan

Understanding an ally that hides terrorists even as it kills many of them.

Pakistani police stand guard at the hideout of slain al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, about 30 miles from Islamabad. Pakistan has handed over some terrorists, while keeping others hidden for its own purposes.(AFP Photo)

photo of Michael Hirsh
May 5, 2011

“We are with you unstintingly.” Those were the words that then-Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf said to the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Wendy Chamberlin, just after 9/11. Musharraf’s promise proved to be largely a lie—but not entirely untrue. Ever since then, whether the Pakistani regime was autocratic or democratic, Islamabad has played a well-thought-out double game with the United States that's involved handing over some jihadis and protecting others for Pakistan’s own purposes.


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And what of the biggest quarry of all—Osama bin Laden? Is there some way of explaining how the al-Qaida leader could spend the last six years ensconced in a large and obtrusive villa in Abbottabad, surrounded by the Pakistani military, without anyone in Pakistani officialdom knowing about it?

 

No, there probably isn’t—and in many ways it’s unsurprising that if the Pakistani authorities knew bin Laden was there, his whereabouts might have been, shall we say, closely held. CIA officials have known for years that when it came to the really big game, such as bin Laden, Pakistani authorities were unlikely to be cooperative: They feared that backlash from the Muslim world and their own society would be too great if they were seen as playing stooges to the Americans and violating Pashtun tribal loyalties.

“My bet is they knew he was there,” Chamberlin told National Journal. “The fear of backlash is part of it. And Pashtun culture is you don’t give up people who’ve helped you, and he goes back to 1980s,” when the mujahideen movement bin Laden was a part of served both U.S. and Pakistani interests against the Soviets.

Pakistan occupies a unique position in American foreign policy. “Any other country, we’d be calling them a state sponsor of terrorism,” said a former senior U.S. diplomat. “It’s inconceivable that we give $3 billion a year to a country that would harbor Osama bin Laden.”

Why does Washington do this—and why is Washington virtually certain to continue providing aid to Pakistan despite the hue and cry in Congress over the bin Laden news? Because Pakistan is a nuclear-armed country that is still mainly secular. Washington has little choice but to support those secular strains and tamp down the Islamist ones, and it can’t do this without the help of the Pakistani government, military, and intelligence apparatus, though it is shot through with Islamist sympathizers.

Critics such as Gary Schroen, the former CIA station chief in neighboring Afghanistan, have noted the Pakistani pattern of giving up second-rate Taliban or al-Qaida leaders only to ameliorate American mistrust, then retreating. To maintain his power, Musharraf cut deals with the religious parties that gave extremists succor, in particular the coalition called the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA, or United Action Committee). In the last decade it was Pakistan's rogue chief nuclear scientist, A.Q. Khan (who is still under government protection)--not Saddam Hussein, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or Kim Jong Il--who was the most dangerous liaison to would-be nuclear terrorists.

At the same time the Pakistani military and intelligence apparatus has grown more cooperative in certain areas as they have become convinced the jihadists they once nurtured as an Islamist counterweight to their fearsome rival, India, have also turned against them. Pakistan helped capture Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the operational kingpin of 9/11, in 2003, and in the years since it has turned over other leading al-Qaida figures. This was partly the result of foolish overreaching by the extremists. As Taliban forces moved into Swat Valley they sought to impose harsh Islamic law and sowed indiscriminate violence that left a bitter taste, prompting support when Pakistani Army Chief of Staff Ashfaq Kayani directed a successful offensive there. Ironically, Pakistani authorities grew so consumed by their own homegrown threats that they may have paid less attention to al-Qaida figures such as bin Laden in their midst, says Seth Jones of the RAND Corporation.

All of which helps to explain why President Obama’s counterterrorism coordinator, John Brennan, declared on Monday: “Pakistan has been responsible for capturing and killing more terrorists inside of Pakistan than any country, and it's by a wide margin. And there have been many, many brave Pakistani soldiers, security officials, as well as citizens, who have given their lives because of the terrorism scourge in that country.”

One big clue into understanding Pakistan’s double game can be found in the scholarly work of the country’s current ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani. In 2005, when he was still considered a dissident to Musharraf’s regime, Haqqani published a book, Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military, which said radical Islamists would always have a safe haven inside the country as long as military strongmen ran Islamabad. Haqqani argued that Pakistani leaders going back to the nation's founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and Pakistani generals have constantly used the unifying principle of Islam and the perceived threat from Hindu India to build a national identity. This helps explain everything from the military's decades-old effort to build up an Islamist insurgency in disputed Kashmir to Islamabad's successful strategy of aiding and building up the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan during the 1990s. 

But it has proved to be something of a Faustian bargain. Many jihadists the Pakistanis once considered “theirs” have since aligned themselves with the Taliban or al-Qaida, and even launched plots against Kayani and other Pakistani officials. Because the Pakistani military’s main strategic imperative continues to be building counterweights to India--including Islamist insurgents--only democracy "can gradually wean the country from Islamic extremism,” Haqqani wrote.

Haqqani’s thesis is still untested, to a degree. While Musharraf has been ousted and Pakistan is nominally democratic under President Asif Ali Zardari—the husband of assassinated Pakistan Peoples Party leader Benazir Bhutto—the country is still effectively ruled by the military. And the Pakistani military’s interests haven’t changed.

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