That Pakistan has been an unreliable ally to the U.S. is hardly news: just as Osama bin Laden was hiding in plain sight in Abbottabad, so has Pakistan’s security establishment scarcely bothered to conceal the fact that it pursues an agenda quite different from that of the U.S. While that establishment has helped the U.S. roll up hundreds of al-Qaeda suspects on its soil, it has also continued to provide sanctuary and succor to the Taliban and other extremist groups, some of them allied with al-Qaeda, in pursuit of its strategic goals in Afghanistan and Kashmir. And U.S. intelligence has long suspected that at least some among its Pakistani counterparts are maintaining ties with al-Qaeda-linked figures.
The U.S. has known this for years, but that hasn’t forced a break in U.S.-Pakistan relations. That’s unlikely to change, even if it turns out that elements in the Pakistani security hierarchy had been aware of bin Laden’s presence all along.
To understand why, you only have to look as far as Damascus. That’s right, Damascus. Syria’s President, Bashar Assad, is Iran’s only ally among Arab heads of state; he is a key patron of Hizballah and Hamas, and is still formally at war with Israel. His regime is accused by the IAEA of trying to build a secret nuclear program (before the facility was bombed by Israel), and he has sought to suppress an unprecedented protest movement against his authoritarian rule by sending in tanks and ordering his security forces to fire on unarmed demonstrators, killing hundreds. Yet you’re unlikely to find a serious foreign policy hand in the corridors of power in Washington — or, for that matter, in Jerusalem — who is willing to advocate for a policy of overthrowing Assad.
That’s because as much as they loathe so much of what Assad represents, the Western powers, Israel and other regimes in the region fear that the alternative would be worse. The sectarian structure of power in Syria means that overthrowing Assad could ignite a civil war that would renew the dangerous Sunni-Shi’ite conflicts in Lebanon and Iraq. Israeli leaders note, if Assad were to fall, the most likely claimant on power would be the Muslim Brotherhood, which could adopt an even more hostile posture. Despite his resistance posture, Assad’s regime is predictable and seen as an agent of stability on Israel’s northern border, over which no shot has been fired from Syria in 38 years. His support for Hizballah is also seen as a brake on any hostilities the Iran-backed group might try to initiate with Israel. And so on.
Instead of trying to oust Assad, Western powers have for years sought to improve his behavior through pressure and inducements, hoping to persuade him to end his relationship with Iran and cooperate with U.S. goals in Iraq and Lebanon. It’s a policy whose results have been few, not least because of the limited leverage available to pursue it. Still, even in the heat of a rebellion whose violent suppression will render Assad’s regime untenable in the sweep of history, there’s no sign of a shift toward regime change in Syria policy.
So, if even Assad can ultimately be deemed a lesser evil in Washington’s strategic logic, it’s not hard to see how Pakistan’s military leaders will be forgiven their trespasses.
Pakistan has a massive nuclear weapons arsenal, and it remains locked in a simmering territorial war with nuclear-armed India; Pakistan, rather than Afghanistan, is the world’s main center of transnational terrorism; for the U.S. to extricate itself from the “nation-building” quagmire in Afghanistan, it will need a political solution with the Taliban, which Pakistan will be instrumental in enabling (and until then, the NATO military mission there remains largely dependent on Pakistan for its supply lines, particularly of fuel); the Pakistani security establishment, rather than the feckless civilian political leadership, is the key power center in Pakistan, holding the line against domestic radical insurgency. And the list goes on.
The U.S. may not like what it sees in Pakistan’s regime, and it may fear that the Pakistani security establishment’s ongoing coddling of extremist groups will do more and more damage. But despite the clamor in Washington this week to punish Pakistan following the revelation that bin Laden had been camped out in the Pakistani military’s backyard, the grim reality may be that the alternatives to maintaining the current relationship — flawed as it may be — are too ghastly for Washington to contemplate.