Even after reports that Pakistani intelligence officials allegedly let Chinese engineers examine the wreckage of the Night Stalkers' famous low-observable Black Hawk, Defense Secretary Panetta and Secretary of State Clinton said Tuesday the U.S. and Pakistan both have an interest in keeping up a close diplomatic and military relationship. Panetta and Clinton appeared onstage together in an unusual session before an audience at National Defense University, and moderator Frank Sesno asked them directly what kind of "ally" would do such a thing.
"I'm not going to comment on classified matters," Panetta said, but he and Clinton fell back on familiar points about the "complicated" ties between between the U.S. and Pakisan and and the checkered history between the two countries. America withdrew from Pakistan after helping support the Afghan insurgents against the Soviets, Clinton said, so Pakistani leaders are leery about whether the U.S. will continue to work with them as American troops begin coming home from Afghanistan.
She didn't say whether she believes that wariness about American reliability is what has enticed Pakistan toward a closer relationship with China, or whether Pakistan's military and intelligence leaders feel so insulted by the United States that their overtures toward China are payback. According to this week's reports, American officials specially asked Pakistani officials not to let outsiders see the crashed helicopter wreckage, but they did anyway -- an unsubtle message if there ever was one.
Sure, it's tough, but the Pakistanis have reasons to keep working with America as much for their own sake as any other reason, Panetta argued. The insurgent networks inside Pakistan, including the Haqqani network, the Taliban and Lashkar e Taiba, someday will be a threat to the Pakistani government, Panetta said, despite their semi-official relationships with it in the past. Incoming CIA Director David Petraeus, when he was running the show in Afghanistan, used to compare these groups to a snake in your neighbor's backyard -- just because it isn't bothering you now doesn't mean it can't slither over and bite you later.
Besides, the U.S. has no good options: The top al Qaeda leaders the U.S. needs to kill or capture are hiding out in Pakistan's ungoverned tribal territories, and it has only been with Pakistani cooperation that American drones have been able to find them and eliminate them. But the same weapon that helps the American effort also hurts its case locally, when drone strikes kill innocent civilians and fuel populist outrage across Pakistan.
So Panetta and Clinton are in a bind: They can't talk about the classified aspects of the U.S. relationship with Pakistan, but they're buffeted by the aftermath of leaks like the one about the Black Hawk wreckage, or ones in the on-again, off-again feuds between the Inter-Services Intelligence agency and the CIA. There could be a more compelling case for why the U.S. should continue to work with Pakistan besides 'we have no choice,' but that's the only one we may be allowed to hear.