As I discussed yesterday, bin Laden’s death has created a moment of plasticity in the US war on terrorism, which US President Obama may use to reconfigure America’s role in Afghanistan and relationship with Pakistan. There are many in Washington who think that Pakistan’s inconsistency in fighting terrorism is a sign they should not be considered an ally. The US did not inform the Pakistanis of the raid on bin Laden, and (again, as discussed in yesterday’s post) took steps to ensure they would not find out until the raid was already underway. This was a public reminder to all parties of the difficulties in the alliance.
The US and Pakistan are now beginning to take shots at one another in the media. The director of the CIA, Leon Panetta, stated in an interview with TIME magazine that the decision to keep Pakistan in the dark was made because of fears that “they might alert the targets.” It goes without saying that accusing another country of being in cahoots with the face of international terror is extremely serious–indeed, Bush’s public statements as President made it clear that this would be sufficient for war. As head of the CIA, Panetta has more liberty than many other public officials to avoid the media, and he has a bit more credibility on national security issues. The seriousness of the allegation, coupled with the man making it, should make it clear that this was a deliberate choice by the US government to communicate extreme displeasure with the Pakistanis. Several American legislators have already sent in requests to the State Department for clarification of Pakistan’s knowledge of bin Laden. US media sources are mixed in their coverage of these incidents–FOX News has it as a headline, while it is “below the fold” on CNN. If the media begins to pick up on the Pakistani complicity story, we could see a significant groundswell of popular anti-Pakistan sentiment that would seriously jeopardize the alliance. Panetta’s statements suggest that this may be the intention, though the process is only beginning.
The Pakistanis have predictably gone into panic mode, and have been struggling to stay ahead of the many allegations. Pakistani President Zardari wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post in which he reminded the world that Pakistani intelligence had identified the bin Laden courier that exposed the compound, and that bin Laden was responsible for the death of his wife, former Pakistani PM Benazir Bhutto. However, Pakistan watchers know that Zardari is not the key authority in Pakistan’s security system–it is the military and the ISI. Former President and military head Pervez Musharraf has publicly downplayed the possibility of ISI knowledge of bin Laden, calling such a notion “utterly stupid.” While he is no longer an insider–he was interviewed in Dubai–Musharraf’s statement suggests the military is just as eager as the government to keep this crisis under control. Indeed, it is the military that has the most to lose, given the large amounts of American aid they receive.
Upshot: The difficulties of the US-Pakistan relationship are coming into the open.