Less than a week after Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, returned home from a trip to Washington, an American drone killed Hakimullah Mehsud, a man who had terrorized all Pakistan as the leader of the country’s most dangerous militant group, the Pakistani Taliban.
With any other two countries, such a sequence of events might have been followed by an official nod to the cooperation involved — or at the very least, meaningful silence. But with the United States and Pakistan it’s always more complicated. Hours after the drone strike, Pakistan’s interior minister accused the United States of the “murder of peace efforts.” He later berated “enemies dressed as friends.”
It’s an old script. Regardless of whatever cooperation is involved, both countries always find it more useful to paint the other as the villain. The Pakistani government, which in reality is playing a central role in the war on terror, gets to paint itself as the victim of a bullying superpower.
Meanwhile, American officials keep pointing to Pakistan’s “double game” for most of their failures in Afghanistan, while downplaying the fact that, without Pakistan, this war would have been impossible to wage in the first place.
The real root of the dysfunction is not so much deceit between allies as the lies both governments have told their own people. Pakistani and American leaders have systematically and purposefully misled their own publics about the nature and details of their partnership. Each country has used the other as a strategic and convenient punching bag.
As an American born to Pakistani parents, fluent in the languages of both countries, I have spent the past 12 years regularly shuttling between the two countries and I’ve seen and heard the duplicitous official narratives steadily take root on each side.
Just days after 9/11, Pervez Musharraf, the former military ruler of Pakistan, addressed his country in Urdu, telling them that America had asked Pakistan for cooperation in intelligence sharing, the use of Pakistani airspace and logistical support. Mr. Musharraf made it clear that he’d decided to cooperate.
But that’s where the openness ended. In 2005, for example, when the Pakistani government announced that a senior Al Qaeda operative had died in an accidental bomb-making explosion in Pakistan’s tribal areas, Hayatullah Khan, a Pakistani investigative journalist travelled to the scene of the blast and found fragments of an American Hellfire missile. Mr. Khan was kidnapped and soon turned up dead. Presenting evidence that America could operate in Pakistani airspace turned out to be deadly.
Seven years later, the American public still doesn’t know much about what their country does in Pakistan. For years, Washington didn’t even recognize the use of drones there. Only recently, after leaks from inside the Obama administration forced officials to begin speaking about the details of the program, have Americans been able to piece together a basic outline.
The same is true of supply lines into landlocked Afghanistan. Within months of the 2001 invasion, Mr. Musharraf signed a deal allowing the transport of American and NATO military equipment through Pakistan. But the agreement was kept secret from the Pakistani people until 2010. The American government was no more candid with its own people. Americans never truly appreciated, for example, that since President George W. Bush was denied permission to dock U.S. Navy vessels in Pakistani ports, America was forced to outsource nearly the entire American military supply chain into the hands of private contractors close to the Pakistani military.
The decision to hide and obscure such details was born of a desire to control the precarious narrative of the war at home. Insecure Pakistani leaders always feared that details of the cooperation would destabilize their already shaky regimes. Likewise, Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama likely thought that publicly acknowledging the compromises they’d made to win Pakistan’s support, might make them appear weak. Keeping their citizens in the dark, leaders in both nations seemed to think, would keep the cooperation simple.
The result has been quite the opposite. The stark disconnect between reality and rhetoric now makes both governments’ pronouncements sound absurd. There have been more than 300 American drone strikes in a remote corner of Pakistan. And while Islamabad continues to denounce these strikes, Pakistani citizens see thousands of trucks carrying huge shipping containers on the highways every day, bringing supplies to the American military in Afghanistan. Likewise, Americans have learned that billions of dollars in aid is still flowing to Pakistan, despite the fact that Osama bin Laden was living a mile away from Pakistan’s main military academy for years.
The resulting confusion is making Americans and Pakistanis hate each other. A Pew Research Center poll in July found that America is more disliked in Pakistan than anywhere else. A Gallup poll a few months earlier found that the countries most disliked by Americans are Pakistan, Iran and North Korea.
The lies that were meant to hold Pakistan and America together in a time of war, are now imperiling the alliance they were meant to protect.
The two countries have been geopolitical allies since Pakistan appeared on the map in 1947. In the interest of preserving this long-term relationship, which will remain vital to both countries long after the American troops withdraw from Afghanistan, the details of the agreements between Pakistan and America must be made public. In the end, Americans and Pakistanis want the same thing — the truth, for once, from their leaders.
Shahan Mufti is the author of The Faithful Scribe: A Story of Islam, Pakistan, Family, and War.