A pall descended over Islamabad as the world learned of Osama bin Laden’s death. Once again Pakistan was in the cross hairs of a terrorism-weary world, this time accused of sheltering the planet’s most-wanted terrorist. Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad hideout has put the lie to the perception of improved relations between Pakistan and the United States since the Obama administration took office, and largely scuttled the goodwill Islamabad had accrued for its own fight against terrorism.
The United States and its European allies are pressing Pakistan to come clean on how and when bin Laden arrived in Abbottabad and to reassure the world of its commitment to fight terrorism. Some in Congress will continue questioning the level of civilian and military assistance to Pakistan, especially in light of this week’s blow to al-Qaeda. Others already envision an end to the war in Afghanistan.
But these are the least of Pakistan’s problems. The CIA shattered Pakistan’s intelligence establishment’s confidence with its ability to hunt and kill bin Laden right under the nose of the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate. Yet the ISI’s real worry is that the next item on the CIA’s agenda could be one of the two Taliban leaders the United States holds most directly responsible for the insurgency in Afghanistan, and who are believed to be hiding in Pakistan: Mullah Omar or Sirajuddin Haqqani, head of his eponymous terrorist network. And if the CIA found bin Laden, then it could probably find everything it wants to know about Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.
It has become clear that since 2009 the CIA has built an infrastructure of intelligence gathering and operational capability that opened up Pakistan’s underworld of jihadists, spooks and terrorists. There are no more secrets. Worse yet, the United States can act at will to kill, capture or destroy in Pakistan — even in an army town.
Pakistan’s strategic calculus has long been shaped by its rivalry with neighboring India. Because it had never done well against India on the battlefield, Pakistan’s military turned to jihadi fighters and terrorists to further its interests against India and in Afghanistan. This strategy worked because the ISI ran a tight ship, protecting the country’s secrets. But it can no longer afford such complacency.
Pakistan realized all this after Raymond Davis, an alleged CIA contractor, shot two armed men who were trailing him in January. The diplomatic crisis that followed his arrest seriously damaged U.S.-Pakistan relations. The Pakistani press reported that Davis was operating in Lahore unbeknownst to the ISI and was gathering information on the terrorist group Lashkar-i-Taiba. The ISI worried about the specter of CIA agents running operations in Pakistani cities and against a terrorist group that most perceive to be a pawn of the Pakistani government.
The ISI used the Davis imbroglio to reduce the CIA’s footprint in Pakistan. It did not want more Davises poking around every nook and cranny — exactly the kind of legwork that led the CIA to bin Laden.
Pakistan now has two options. It can become less cooperative with the U.S. counterterrorism campaign and in Afghanistan, and try to weaken the CIA in Pakistan. This would put Islamabad on a collision course with Washington; if the Davis affair is any indication, the resulting tension between the intelligence agencies will make it difficult for the nations to conduct business as usual. (Islamabad will also, of course, have plenty to juggle if another terrorist attack takes place soon in the West and is traced back to Pakistan.)
Or, Pakistan can conclude that its borders are too porous to Western intelligence for the likes of al-Qaeda, the Haqqani network and Lashkar-i-Taiba to safely organize, recruit and carry out attacks. Since Islamabad can no longer protect its jihadist and Taliban assets, it should reassess its strategic calculus and abandon a foreign policy that relies on jihadist adventurism.
If history is any guide, Pakistan cannot be relied upon to make the right decision. In the coming weeks, Islamabad is likely to hunker down in reaction to bin Laden’s death and then go after the CIA’s eyes and ears around Pakistan. But there is a window of opportunity for the West to nudge Pakistan to reevaluate its foreign policy. However narrow the opening, it is worth exploring.
Doing so would require the United States to react to this latest Pakistani transgression in a new way. Washington should not credit Pakistan for helping with hunting down bin Laden and then turn around and freeze relations and scale back assistance. Rather, Washington should continue its assistance programs and bilateral engagement to show Pakistan a path to a normal, long-run relationship with the United States. Meanwhile, it should engage Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership at the highest levels to push for a change in foreign policy. America’s confidence and Pakistan’s anxiety and vulnerability at this critical moment create an opening to push U.S.-Pakistan relations in a new direction.
Vali Nasr, a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He served as senior adviser to the State Department’s special representative on Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2009 to 2011.