American and Pakistani officials don't trust each other. Pakistan supports militant extremist groups. And it may well have knowingly harbored Osama bin Laden for years -- or at least chosen not to search for him too diligently. Yet a panel of foreign policy experts told a House panel on Tuesday that Pakistan is too important an ally for the U.S. to abandon, although they differed on the next steps Washington should take.
In the aftermath of bin Laden's death in a mansion in a suburb of Pakistan's capital, congressional lawmakers are questioning whether it's worth continuing to pay billions of dollars to Pakistan's military and intelligence agencies, given that they're apparently riven with duplicity. House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican, said elements within Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Agency have "a dual loyalty" to their American allies and to the extremist groups that Pakistan has created to use as proxies against Afghanistan and India. Even if Pakistan doesn't directly fund or control the terror groups -- which it may -- its lassaiz-faire approach means they could pose a danger to the U.S. and its allies.
King pointed out that this relationship has been broken for a long time: Back during the Clinton administration, he said, American officials told Pakistan the U.S. would attempt to destroy the al Qaeda training camp where bin Laden was believed to be staying, and asked for permission for American cruise missiles to pass overhead. It was granted. The attack took place, but bin Laden was no longer at the camp, and King made clear that he believed Pakistani intelligence may have tipped off al Qaeda. The situation improved after the 2001 terrorist attacks, he acknowledged, and said that, all told, the U.S. had gotten enough benefit from working with Pakistan that it outweighed the other recent drawbacks and complications.
One way Washington can mend its relationship with Islamabad is by quickly trying to dispel two commonly held beliefs in southwest Asia, said Fred Kagan, an analyst with the American Enterprise Institute: First, that the U.S. isn't committed to remaining engaged in the region and will abandon Afghanistan and Pakistan, as it did after the failed Soviet invasion of the 1980s. Second, that all the U.S. cares about is bin Laden, and that aid and engagement will disappear once he's out of the picture. Now that he is, officials need to say privately and publicly that neither myth is true, and continue to work with Afghanistan and Pakistan even as American troops begin to come home, Kagan said. Still, he acknowledged that healthy cooperation will take years of work and patience.
“I think we’re a long way from trust on Pakistan," he said. "It’ll be a long way before they trust us or we trust them given the nature of our relationship.”