What Kind of an Ally Is Pakistan?

January 3, 2012

Tonight, along with our new film Opium Brides, FRONTLINE will rebroadcast Secret War, a revealing look at the CIA’s drone program in Pakistan and covert support for elements of the Taliban by the Pakistani military and its intelligence service, the ISI. Check your local listings or watch it online.

As the U.S.-Pakistan relationship continued to descend to new, new lows over the past year, the U.S. has become increasingly vocal in expressing frustrations with its supposed ally in the fight against terror — and vice versa. Here are a few recent reports that explore the latest tensions in this troubled relationship.

U.S. Prepares for a Curtailed Relationship With Pakistan — The New York Times (Dec. 25, 2011)

Pakistan and the U.S. may have reached a point of no return, according to a recent New York Times article by Eric Schmitt, who reports that Pakistan is in the midst of a “wide-ranging review” of the relationship:

With American diplomats essentially waiting quietly and Central Intelligence Agency drone strikes on hold since Nov. 16 — the longest pause since 2008 — Pakistan’s government is drawing up what Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani called “red lines” for a new relationship that protects his country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The core priorities in the new relationship will include counterterrorism, ensuring the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and stabilizing Afghanistan, but Schmitt reports Pakistan will want the terms “spelled out in writing and agreed to in advance.”

The Ally From Hell — The Atlantic and National Journal (December 2011)

Concerns that the U.S. will attempt to “de-nuke” Pakistan have actually put the safety of the nation’s nuclear arsenal at greater risk, report Jeffrey Goldberg and Marc Ambinder in their controversial article that looks at Washington’s fears:

Nuclear-weapons components are sometimes moved by helicopter and sometimes moved over roads. And instead of moving nuclear material in armored, well-defended convoys, the SPD [Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division] prefers to move material by subterfuge, in civilian-style vehicles without noticeable defenses, in the regular flow of traffic. According to both Pakistani and American sources, vans with a modest security profile are sometimes the preferred conveyance. And according to a senior U.S. intelligence official, the Pakistanis have begun using this low-security method to transfer not merely the “de-mated” component nuclear parts but “mated” nuclear weapons. …

What this means, in essence, is this: In a country that is home to the harshest variants of Muslim fundamentalism, and to the headquarters of the organizations that espouse these extremist ideologies, including al-Qaeda, the Haqqani network, and Lashkar-e-Taiba (which conducted the devastating terror attacks on Mumbai three years ago that killed nearly 200 civilians), nuclear bombs capable of destroying entire cities are transported in delivery vans on congested and dangerous roads. And Pakistani and American sources say that since the raid on Abbottabad, the Pakistanis have provoked anxiety inside the Pentagon by increasing the pace of these movements. In other words, the Pakistani government is willing to make its nuclear weapons more vulnerable to theft by jihadists simply to hide them from the United States, the country that funds much of its military budget.

These claims, of course, did not go over well in Pakistan. Pakistan’s foreign ministry called the report “pure fiction” and “part of a deliberate propaganda campaign meant to mislead opinion.” The Pakistani Army sought to quell concerns by revealing details about the training and standards security forces undergo in the Strategic Plans Division (SPD), the security apparatus tasked with safeguarding the weapons. And Pakistani journalist Ejaz Haider went even further in questioning the report’s assertions, writing:

Concerned officials at the Inter-Services Public Relations, the Strategic Plans Division and the Inter-Services Intelligence deny anyone authorised to speak with the media on this subject ever met with or spoke to these reporters. “No request was ever filed, no one ever spoke to them, no one had heard their names before the publishing of this article,” I was told.

The Pakistanis Have A Point — The New York Times Magazine (Dec. 14, 2011)

Bill Keller chronicles this particularly disastrous year in Pakistan-U.S. relations, tracing both Washington’s ire over Pakistani support for terrorist groups, and Pakistan’s grievances against the U.S., including backlash over the CIA’s drone program. Keller describes two turning points — an explosive incident in which a CIA contractor shot two Pakistanis dead on a crowded street in Lahore early last year as well as November’s errant NATO airstrikes that mistakenly killed 26 Pakistani soldiers.

Keller argues that the lasting effects on the Pakistani psyche from these incidents is an important thread too often absent from the American narrative:

If you survey informed Americans, you will hear Pakistanis described as duplicitous, paranoid, self-pitying and generally infuriating. In turn, Pakistanis describe us as fickle, arrogant, shortsighted and chronically unreliable. Neither country’s caricature of the other is entirely wrong, and it makes for a relationship that is less in need of diplomacy than couples therapy, which customarily starts by trying to see things from the other point of view. While the Pakistanis have hardly been innocent, they have a point when they say America has not been the easiest of partners.

A Perfect Terrorist — ProPublica and FRONTLINE (Nov. 22, 2011)

The strongest public evidence to date of the Pakistani intelligence service’s complicity in terrorism came at the trial this summer of David Coleman Headley, an American citizen who confessed to involvement in the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai that killed 166 people. In November, FRONTLINE and ProPublica teamed up to explore how Headley, a former Drug Enforcement Agency informant, navigated a bizarre and conflicting set of alliances, and what the U.S. knew about Headley’s relationships with Pakistani intelligence and terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba.

The Journalist and the Spies — The New Yorker (Sept. 19, 2011)

Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad “seemed to know his time was running out” New Yorker writer Dexter Filkins observed when the two men met nine days before Shahzad’s waterlogged, tortured body was found outside Islamabad.

Days before he went missing, Shahzad had published a provocative report asserting that Al Qaeda had carried out a bold attack on Pakistan’s primary naval base in retaliation for crackdowns on Al Qaeda affiliates within Pakistan’s navy. Though many — including Pakistani journalists, human rights advocates and even unnamed Obama administration officials — have suspected or specifically cited ISI involvement in Shahzad’s death, Filkins’ investigation makes the most comprehensive case to date that his murder was ordered by the Pakistani state:

The first order to harm Shahzad was issued shortly after his article on the Mehran attack appeared. The initial directive was not to kill him but to rough him up… But a senior American official confirms that, at some point before Shahzad was taken away, the directive was changed. He was to be murdered. Five weeks after the killing, Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said publicly that it had been “sanctioned by the government” of Pakistan. In fact, according to the American official, reliable intelligence indicates that the order to kill Shahzad came from a senior officer on [Pakistani Army chief] General [Ashfaq Parvez] Kiyani’s staff. The officer made it clear that he was speaking on behalf of Kiyani himself.

But Filkins’ report goes even further, speculating that the CIA may have benefited from intelligence extracted during Shahzad’s brutal interrogation, noting the death of notorious Al Qaeda-linked terrorist Ilyas Kashmiri in a drone strike just five days after Shahzad was reported killed:

Given the brief time that passed between Shahzad’s death and Kashmiri’s, a question inevitably arose: Did the Americans find Kashmiri on their own? Or did they benefit from information obtained by the I.S.I. during its detention of Shahzad? If so, Shahzad’s death would be not just a terrible example of Pakistani state brutality; it would be a terrible example of the collateral damage sustained in America’s war on terror.

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