By Scott Malcomson for The New York Times
Remember how after 9/11, Osama bin Laden’s attacks on us could be linked to almost anything, from shopping habits to the rediscovery of Western values to carbon-pricing schemes? Something similar appears to be happening with Bin Laden’s death. Jihadism sure isn’t what it used to be. After 10 years, it seems, the time has come to go home. Troops are and will be coming back to the United States from Iraq and Afghanistan. The military budget will be cut. The outgoing secretary of defense feels able to openly mock NATO because, presumably, he thinks he can afford to — because it doesn’t matter all that much. The global war on terror is being downgraded from Armageddon to something more out of Leviticus: a tricked-out police action, just as John Kerry, in this magazine, always said it should be. On Sunday, Helene Cooper and Mark Landler reported that “American success in the counterterrorism campaign would seem to bolster arguments for a swift withdrawal from Afghanistan.” By Tuesday morning, they were reporting that President Obama would announce his withdrawal plans on Wednesday. Meanwhile, a Harris poll revealed that 51 percent of Americans and 54 percent of Britons believed “the death of Bin Laden meant it was time to bring troops from their countries home.”
That isn’t quite how it looked when I was in Washington a few weeks ago and spoke with about a dozen current and former American officials and with Pakistanis. The impression they each gave was that American withdrawal would be speeded not because of Bin Laden’s death but because of Pakistan’s reaction to it. After the initial shock, Pakistan’s (government-influenced) press latched onto a narrative of “national humiliation” as a result of the American raid, rather than, say, one of jubilation at the demise of a killer whose fantasies have brought Pakistan nothing but misery. A younger generation of military officers — Pakistan is dominated by its military — seemed at times about to revolt in reaction to the insult to Pakistan’s sovereignty. And the Inter Services Intelligence (I.S.I.), Pakistan’s ubiquitous military intelligence outfit, reacted, as was subsequently reported, by scouring the neighborhood around Bin Laden’s house for … evidence of how the C.I.A. found out he was there, and to determine who had been helping the Americans.
Finally, the Pakistan government did not respond to the Bin Laden raid by pressing its new advantage and rolling up terrorist networks across the land. No, it did not do that at all. So Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, went to Islamabad and on May 27 presented a list of demands. These included the arrest or elimination of Ayman al-Zawahiri (of Al Qaeda), Ilyas Kashmiri (a long-sought semi-free-agent and former Pakistani military man), Sirajuddin Haqqani (of the AfPak-border based Haqqani network) and Atiya Abdur Rahman (Al Qaeda), and the shutting down of bomb factories in Pakistan.
By June 3, Kashmiri was dead. But this promising start now seems isolated. The other wanted men are still at large. The bomb-makers might well be getting tipped off. The revolt by younger Pakistani officers seemed only to get worse.
In short, the U.S. and Pakistan are really not getting along. Among members of Congress, beating up Pakistan has become ritualized; Senators McCain and Rogers were doing it again on the Sunday programs. I wondered: How many times can Pakistan be abandoned? As Bruce Riedel, a former C.I.A. officer and the head of President Obama’s first major AfPak review, shows in his excellent new book, “Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America and the Future of Islamist Jihad,” embrace and abandonment have formed the pattern of American-Pakistani relations since the majority-Muslim nation was formed out of the breakup of British India in 1947. Harry Truman’s lack of interest yielded to Dwight Eisenhower’s enthusiasm for Pakistan as an anti-Communist bulwark and a base for spying on the Soviets. The relationship was and remained built around security and intelligence. Lyndon Johnson reversed course when India and Pakistan went to war in 1965; he cut off both, but Pakistan had, unlike India, been a strong ally, and it felt betrayed. This set the pattern: ultimately, Pakistan was tactical and India was strategic.
Now, after almost 10 years of intense engagement, Pakistan and the U.S. appear set for another split; at least that was the consensus among the officials I spoke with. There was a pervasive sadness in these conversations. It was due in part to the sheer human effort that has gone into the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. A lot of spies and soldiers and diplomats and politicians have put years of their lives into making “AfPak” work, which requires making Pak work. A lot (not all) of that effort seems to be going down the drain, along with much of the billions of taxpayer dollars that financed it.
There is also personal sadness in that the AfPak effort was associated toward the end with Richard Holbrooke, whose death late last year brought the foreign-policy world up short. Holbrooke did not take great care of himself, so objectively his death could not be entirely a surprise, and among people over 70 the reactions I heard were more of the well-what-did-you-expect variety. But in the 35-to-65 range it was different. Holbrooke represented, very attractively, the assertion of youth and hope against experience. Even at 69 he had a distinct eagerness, even boyishness, alongside the baritone gravitas. He attracted bright young people. He could be young and old at the same time. Once he was gone, that sort of generational bridging disappeared. (Older figures are few in this administration.) The sense of continuity (as well as of optimism) is weakening. There’s something missing now.
There was also a sense of ideological loss of direction. For all their differences, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush shared a tangible optimism about American governmental involvement abroad. President Obama is different, and even if he weren’t the national mood is. The people’s representatives in Congress are vying to bring troops home faster, and if there is an internationalist remaining in the House he or she is keeping quiet. The Republican candidates for president seem to have settled on anti-war isolationism as a winning position. Obama’s great strength in foreign policy — his ability to repackage, and optimize, American power in a multipolar world — is the strategy that dare not speak its name, or it will bring accusations of “declinism.”
Finally, there is the tremendous sadness of Pakistan itself. The country doesn’t have enough water. It lacks the electricity to develop its industries. Literacy, by some reckonings, is actually declining. Democracy has been restored but the government is hardly stable. The one truly semi-stable institution, the military, is struggling against itself, just as Pakistanis are dividing, and attacking each other on an increasing scale (which is saying something).
But, in a way, the saddest thing of all, from a foreign-policy point of view — Pakistani or American — is that the one great card Pakistan has to play is to make itself a problem. Pakistan formed itself into a regional player through building its army, running terrorist proxies in Kashmir and Afghanistan, indulging in enough Islamist millenarianism to make itself frightening, and developing nuclear weapons. None of these strategies have a good future. But in the absence of a long-term committed relationship — what Holbrooke promoted as a “strategic partnership” — with the United States or, perhaps, with China, Pakistan is left with fear as its most successful export.
There was some discussion in Washington as to whether Mullah Omar’s name was on that list that Clinton and Mullen presented in Islamabad. It almost doesn’t matter. The doubt itself is the message: Pakistan stays valuable because it has terrorist “ties” or “links” or “proxies” or whatever. As national existential dilemmas go, Pakistan’s is particularly nightmarish. The U.S. will leave them to it — abandonment again — and choose the happier relationship with India. Secretary Clinton will be at the regional forum of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in late July, helping to take her longtime initiative of eastward Indian engagement, and the integration of the United States into East Asian political structures, to a new level. This is part of a long-term strategy of accommodating the rise of China and of India.
And Pakistan, after 10 years, will be left behind; as the line in Washington goes, “There is no good solution.”