With the arrest of several Pakistani citizens accused of helping the CIA track down Osama Bin Laden (one reportedly an army major), suspicions that Pakistani officials were protecting the al-Qaeda leader have been rekindled. After all, why else would the Pakistanis go after individuals whose only crime was to help the United States bring the world’s most-wanted man to justice? It would seem that the Pakistanis are broadcasting both to their own people and to the world at large that al-Qaeda should be left alone. But there is another explanation—and it is a much better one.
The operation that targeted Bin Laden was done without the knowledge or permission of the Pakistani authorities. It would have been one thing had this been an isolated incident. Bin Laden was by far the most-wanted terrorist in history, and the United States could hardly be faulted for wanting to keep the operation under the closest of holds. Even if the army generals who run the Pakistani intelligence service could have been counted on to act in good faith, who could say for certain there wasn’t an al-Qaeda informant lurking somewhere in ISI ranks? But the Bin Laden operation was not an isolated incident. Earlier this year, a CIA contractor named Raymond Davis was arrested in Lahore after killing two Pakistanis he said were trying to rob him. Pakistani officials later claimed the two men were ISI informants detailed to follow the American. It was later revealed that Davis was working for a CIA cell based in the Punjabi capital that was surveilling local Islamic militants. The targeted group was most likely the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the only Pakistani jihadist group based in the Lahore area. This raised Pakistani hackles since the Lashkar has been an important weapon in the country’s struggle with India over Kashmir and remains the only domestic radical Islamic group that has yet to turn against the state.
The Davis affair not only revealed that ISI was aware that the CIA was conducting operations on Pakistani territory without its knowledge or permission, it also provided it with ammunition to do something about it. Despite U.S. protestations that Davis enjoyed diplomatic immunity, Pakistani authorities refused to release him until the CIA provided assurances they would do a better job of keeping ISI informed about operations inside Pakistan. It was against the backdrop of these assurances that, less than a month and a half later, the United States carried out its assault on the Bin Laden compound in Abbottabad. This raid, which took place on the outskirts of an army town less than a mile from the Pakistani version of West Point, humiliated the army leadership and its ISI subordinates. It made them look like they were either in league with Bin Laden or grossly incompetent in failing to detect his presence literally under their noses. But their humiliation was also leavened with anger. The Bin Laden caper reminded them that Washington, whatever pledges it may have made, was still conducting operations inside Pakistani territory without their knowledge or permission. To say the least.
The Pakistanis decided to crack down. In recent weeks, they have reportedly cut intelligence cooperation across the board, evicted U.S. military advisors and instituted a moratorium on the issuance of visas to CIA officers newly assigned to Pakistan. They have also put increasing pressure on Washington to sharply cut back its drone attacks in the tribal areas. These attacks have overwhelmingly targeted members of the Haqqani network, the major Afghan Taliban group based in the region. This is the very same group the Pakistanis have steadfastly refused to go after—despite relentless U.S. pressure that they do so—because they see them as a hedge against what they fear will be an unfriendly Afghan government allied to their archenemy India once the United States departs the region. Here too the CIA has recruited its own network of local Pakistani informants to help it locate Haqqani network personnel for Predator attacks. Seen against the backdrop of these escalating antagonisms, it is hardly surprising that Pakistan would begin arresting citizens it had reason to believe had helped the CIA carry out the Bin Laden operation. The idea was almost certainly to deter other Pakistanis, particularly army officers, from working for the CIA without ISI permission.
The sharp deterioration in relations to which these developments attest is primarily due to the fundamentally incompatible objectives the United States and Pakistan harbor toward Afghanistan. The Pakistanis have no great love for the Afghan Taliban, but they deeply resent apparent U.S. unwillingness to take their concerns about the substantial Indian presence in their historically unfriendly neighbor seriously. They believe they have paid a very steep price for supporting Washington in the wake of 9/11. Their decision to help the United States bring senior al-Qaeda leaders to justice caused most of the domestic jihadist groups they were using against India in Kashmir to turn against them. Their decision to send the army into the tribal areas to look for al-Qaeda members caused local Pakistanis protecting them to band together into the Pakistani Taliban and wage war against the state. In their view, Pakistanis have earned a friendly government in Kabul. Yet all they seem to hear from American officials is that they have nothing to worry about because the U.S. intends to remain diplomatically engaged in the region. This is hardly reassuring coming from what they regard as a notoriously fair-weather friend.
Washington, for its part, fears that if the Afghan Taliban succeed in Afghanistan they will simply return that country to the unacceptable status quo that existed prior to 9/11. But the United States has been unwilling to pursue any major initiatives aimed at fundamentally improving India-Pakistan relations because New Delhi resolutely opposes third-party involvement. So it has been left with little choice but to hector the Pakistanis regarding the Afghan Taliban and to steadily ratchet up the pressure, ignoring Pakistani sensibilities along the way. As recent events have amply illustrated, this is only likely to result in increased acrimony and confrontation and to make a bad situation even worse.