By Gerald F Seib for The Wall Street Journal
One diplomat long involved in the tempestuous U.S.-Pakistan relationship likens it to a Catholic marriage: There may be problems, but divorce isn’t an option.
And so it is that, almost a month after U.S. Navy SEALs entered Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden, the two troubled partners find themselves not in divorce court but in an awkward but unmistakable process of reconciliation.
Signs of healing are popping up. Despite its anger and embarrassment at being left in the dark about the bin Laden raid, Pakistan’s intelligence service has begun cooperating again on a series of sensitive matters. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen have just held the obligatory kiss-and-make-up talks in Pakistan, which U.S. officials describe as blunt but useful in moving forward.
And despite widespread anger in Congress over Pakistan’s harboring, either willfully or unknowingly, the world’s leading terrorist, Obama administration officials seem to be squelching the desire to extract revenge by cutting Pakistan’s aid.
There remains the danger of a rupture, and there still could be long-term damage. Street-level anger on both sides means the relationship can’t stand too many more shocks just now.
In particular, it seems likely that one result of the trauma will be a scaling back of the drone wars—America’s use of armed drones to launch strikes inside Pakistan to attack operatives of the Taliban movement fighting U.S. forces next door in Afghanistan.
The drones likely will continue to be used against top Taliban leaders when found, but less often against lower-priority targets, and probably under new and clearer rules of cooperation with the Pakistanis, say those familiar with the effort.
Still, the reality is that the two countries don’t have much choice but to move on. Regardless of how much love is flowing at any moment, they simply need each other.
The American war against al Qaeda globally and against Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan simply can’t be won without the cooperation of Pakistan. Much as Americans are infuriated by the way elements of Pakistan’s government and intelligence service hedge their bets by playing both sides in the struggle against extremism, there’s no doubt that Pakistani intelligence has been crucial in the fight.
For its part, Pakistan has, in its fit of pique over the bin Laden raid, made its best show of playing the China card to demonstrate to the U.S. that Pakistanis can find good, powerful friends in Beijing if Americans don’t treat them better. By coincidence, this has been proclaimed, officially by the two countries, the year of China-Pakistan friendship, which is a useful card for Pakistan to play right now.
But Pakistan’s post-raid overture showed the limits of the China option as much as anything else. Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani made a four-day trip to China soon after the bin Laden operation, and came away with a Chinese pledge to speed up delivery of some previously promised fighter jets.
Mr. Gilani’s other takeaway from his visit promptly proved dubious. His defense minister announced that Pakistan had invited China to take over management of a big Pakistani port at Gwadar, and to build a new naval base there. In response, the Chinese said, essentially, “We have no idea what you’re talking about.” Whatever was discussed, it appears to be less than originally advertised.
Pakistanis as well as Americans know China has its limits as an alternative big-power friend for Islamabad. American aid can’t easily be replaced, and China doesn’t tend to dole out assistance easily. Meanwhile, the U.S. is the top market for Pakistani exports, while China ranks fifth. China’s big textile industry actually is a key international competitor to Pakistan’s own textile sector.
Ultimately, the Chinese are less likely to be helpful to Pakistan in the war against extremism than will the U.S. China tends to use partnerships abroad to solve its problems, not to help friends solve theirs.
In the meantime, real and meaningful steps have resumed in the U.S.-Pakistani intelligence relationship. Pakistan has allowed American officials to speak with the bin Laden wives found in his compound. It has returned the tail section of a U.S. helicopter lost in the raid; there was stealth technology embedded in it—technology the U.S. feared an angry Pakistan might instead share with China.
And Pakistan has agreed to allow American officials into the bin Laden compound to search for more intelligence on al Qaeda operations run from there.
The U.S. now seeks more help in fighting the Taliban inside Pakistan, and there will be a three-way American-Afghan-Pakistani meeting to discuss Afghanistan next month.
All isn’t bliss between Washington and Islamabad—not by a long shot—but those aren’t the actions of partners headed their separate ways.