When U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Pakistan last week, she noted that U.S.- Pakistani relations were at a turning point after the killing of Osama bin Laden. It was up to the Pakistanis, she said, to decide “what kind of country they wish to live in.”
The brutalized body of investigative journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad, which turned up outside of Islamabad on May 31, may provide a clue to the answer.
Shahzad disappeared after publishing the first of two promised articles linking elements of the Pakistan navy to al-Qaeda following a deadly May 22 attack on a Karachi naval station. Last fall, after being questioned about a different story by Pakistan’s Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Shahzad wrote that he was threatened by the spy agency.
Alternatively, it could be that foul play like Shahzad’s murder will become a thing of the past in Pakistan. While in Islamabad May 27, Clinton and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen demanded authorities take “decisive steps” to crush the violent extremists the government has long supported, which would end the need to intimidate journalists who expose that support. Whichever way the Pakistan government goes, the May warnings by the U.S. ought to be the last.
The U.S. administration has continued to insist, as President Barack Obama did in a May 22 interview with the BBC, that the Pakistanis have “generally been significant and serious partners against the terrorist threat to the West.” This simply isn’t the case.
For much of the past decade, Pakistan has been both a victim and a sponsor of Islamic militants. Its soldiers are fighting bravely against homegrown terrorists seeking to install an Islamic government. In 20 attacks in May, these radicals killed some 150 people.
At the same time, the Pakistani army, led by General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, is a longstanding patron of violent groups targeting Afghanistan and India. Guided by excessive fear bordering on paranoia about India, Pakistan’s military and intelligence services believe that nurturing those extremists is an effective way to frustrate India’s regional ambitions. The ISI largely created and continues to support the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, the principal groups battling U.S. forces in Afghanistan and the fledgling government in Kabul. It also backs Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group responsible for the 2008 attacks in Mumbai that killed more than 160 people.
President George W. Bush’s administration tried to end this double-dealing by giving Pakistan billions in economic and military assistance. Yet Bush didn’t make the aid contingent on a crackdown on extremists. The Pakistanis cooperated somewhat with U.S. efforts to dismantle al-Qaeda but refused to act against other groups, including the Afghan Taliban, which was given refuge inside Pakistan’s borders.
The Obama administration accelerated the failed Bush policy, substantially increasing military and economic assistance, again without imposing rigorous conditions. And Pakistan continued to ignore administration warnings about continued support for extremists.
In one incident reported by the Washington Post, Obama’s first national security adviser, James Jones, warned officials in Islamabad that there would be “consequences” if a terrorist attack directed at the U.S. was traced to Pakistan. Yet when a man who had trained at a terrorist camp in that country attempted to detonate a car bomb in Times Square in May 2010, the U.S. administration did nothing. Shortly thereafter, Obama watered down Jones’s words, telling Kayani that a “successful” attack would have consequences.
So when U.S. authorities learned that Osama bin Laden might be housed in a villa in a Pakistani garrison town, they dispatched Navy Seals to capture or kill him without so much as notifying the Pakistanis in advance. The raid provoked great outrage from officials in Pakistan. Since then, emotions have cooled. Clinton and Mullen have delivered their warnings, public and private. And this time, the Americans may mean business.
Will the Pakistanis respond?
Shahzad’s murder is a bad sign. On the other hand, reports from Pakistani tribal leaders suggest that the Pakistani army may be preparing a serious campaign in North Waziristan, where the leaders of the Haqqani Network and other extremist groups live.
It will soon be clear whether Clinton’s latest message got through. If not, the administration must consider new ways to persuade Pakistan to change course, recognizing that the country is behaving more like an adversary than a partner.
To contact the Bloomberg View editorial board: firstname.lastname@example.org