Relationship Drama: What’s up with Pakistan?

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Events in recent weeks again reveal the ever-present vulnerabilities in our tumultuous partnership with Pakistan. What happened, and how do we move forward?

Pakistan: the recipient of billions of dollars in military assistance and our partner in a decade-long “war on terror,” the leadership in Islamabad is arguably the most important US ally in the struggle against al Qaeda. But in recent weeks, questions of criminal activity and corruption within Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) have created an incredibly sticky situation for US policymakers.

In the wake of bin Laden’s death, suspicions arose regarding the extent of Pakistani intelligence on the al Qaeda chief and his sanctuary in Abbottabad. A May 23 Taliban raid on a major naval base in Karachi prompted concerns that it was an “inside job” by Taliban affiliates within the military. Furthermore, testimony last week by American terrorist David Coleman Headley in a Chicago trial alleged coordination between the ISI and militants who carried out 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai. Just this week, the murder of Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad (who alleged al Qaeda infiltration of the Pakistani navy just days before his kidnapping) coupled with claims from Human Rights Watch that Shahzad was directly threatened by the ISI have spurred belief that the ISI orchestrated his killing. And on Tuesday, family members of bin Laden’s two assassinated couriers report being detained by ISI officials and warned against speaking to the media, potentially implicating the Pakistani government in a cover-up.

The ISI flatly denies such claims, most recently with respect to Shahzad’s murder:

“It is regrettable that some sections of the media have taken upon themselves to use the incident for targeting and maligning the ISI,” [an ISI] official was quoted as saying.

US leaders are gravely concerned about the credibility of the Pakistani establishment. CIA chief Leon Panetta publicly disclosed that the US did not tell Pakistan of Operation Geronimo until after the fact because they could not be trusted to safeguard the information. Pakistani leaders are angry, and they continually fire back at accusations of treachery. In a “tense” visit to Islamabad last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton re-emphasized the importance of a bilateral commitment to combating terrorism and terrorist havens and secured a promise of appropriate action by Pakistani officials. The Secretary’s trip acknowledges the necessity of maintaining a strong relationship with the ISI, even if a relationship of appeasement.

But concern is mounting stateside, and Congress seeks to limit any potentially risky elements of US support for Pakistan.

Yesterday House Republicans proposed a defense funding bill that will tie $1.1 billion in counterinsurgency assistance to conditions “forcing a fuller airing of concerns regarding [the partnership with Islamabad] in the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden inside Pakistan.”

Politico’s report on the defense package continues:

Legislative language withholds three-quarters of the funds until the Defense and State Department come up with a report to Congress on how the money is being used and what metrics are being used to measure progress by Pakistan in rooting out terrorist and Taliban elements inside its borders.

A mutually beneficial relationship with Pakistan will require continued vigilance on the part of American policymakers and intelligence agents. The future of the relationship is ultimately in the hands of Pakistani officials, who face the monumental challenge of reforming their house and rooting out corruptive elements from within.

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