Monday, June 20, 2011

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Zardari?

The diplomatic aftermath of the successful mission against the Osama bin Laden compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan was predictable, especially when it became clear that US authorities not only didn’t inform the Pakistani government of the imminent raid, but President Obama trebled the size of the assault force so, in the face of possible resistance from Pakistani police or armed forces, they could fight their way out. There may or may not have been a deal in place, giving the American military free access to pursue a raid against bin Laden but providing for vociferous after-the-fact protests by the Pakistani government. I wrote about all this on May 12.

Now, according the AP’s Kimberly Dozier,
U.S. officials say Pakistan has apparently tipped off militants at two more bomb-building factories in its tribal areas, giving the terror suspects time to flee, after U.S. intelligence shared the locations with the Pakistani government.

U.S. officials believe Pakistan's insistence on seeking local tribal elders' permission before raiding the areas may have most directly contributed to the militants' flight. U.S. officials have pushed for Pakistan to keep the location of such targets secret prior to the operations, but the Pakistanis say their troops cannot enter the lawless regions without giving the locals notice….

The latest incidents bring to a total of four bomb-making sites that the U.S. has shared with Pakistan only to have the terrorist suspects flee before the Pakistani military arrived much later.
Apparently, the American military got suspicious and satellite-monitored suspected bomb-making sites after alerting the Pakistanis. “In each case, they watched the militants depart within 24 hours, taking any weapons or bomb-making materials with them, just as militants had done the first two times. Only then, did they watch the Pakistani military visit each site, when the terror suspects and their wares were long gone, the officials said.”

Anyone paying attention will have long since come to the conclusion that the chances of real cooperation from the Pakistani government--any Pakistani government—are roughly equal to the chances that Lucy will let Charlie Brown kick the football. But while the news can hardly be described as surprising, it is certainly disappointing in at least two ways.

First, there is the obvious lack of détente after the Abbottabad raid. If there was a deal in place to allow American forces to go after bin Laden, the Pakistanis sure aren’t acting like it. Their indignation that they would be accused of tipping off terrorists is so transparently false, it’s laughable. Or, rather, it would be if the stakes weren’t as high as they are. No, they didn’t directly phone up and say, “by the way, we’re raiding you tomorrow; just thought we’d let you know.” No, they called up the local tribal chiefs, and they passed the word along. It’s like saying you didn’t tell anyone your friend’s secret… you just posted it on the Internet.

The second concern, of course, is the rather too frank admission that the administration of Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari doesn’t really have control over its own territory. Apparently they need the equivalent of a hall pass to enter certain areas, which oh-so-coincidentally happen to be where much of the terroristic activity is taking place. So even if Pakistan were an honest and reliable ally, it wouldn’t be much help.

Yet while it is true that no one believes the Pakistani government can be trusted, they’re no doubt better than the alternative. That means the allowing distrust to spiral downward into real belligerence is not a legitimate solution. But it’s clear that Pakistan has neither the desire nor the ability to clean up pockets of terrorism within its own borders. I presume that logistical problems such as the potential for extensive civilian casualties prevents using drone strikes against this type of target.

The US, therefore, is left with three unsavory choices. Possibility #1 is to continue to pretend the Pakistanis really are the allies we have long trumpeted them as being (not that anyone really believed it). That means we’ll catch the occasional low-level insurgent when the string of failures starts looking a little too long to be otherwise plausible, rather like the crooked roulette wheel generates a winner every now and then to keep the suckers interested. But don’t hold your breath for a real payoff.

The second scenario would involve simply giving up on pursuing anyone—bomb-maker, militiaman or mastermind alike—who manages to make it over the border into Pakistan. This seems even less tenable than the first option.

Finally, we could decide to take matters into our own hands and pursue any military target we want, Pakistani sovereignty be damned: if they’re not a friend, they’re an enemy. This, of course, has serious repercussions not only in terms of international law, but also in terms of the widespread perception—fueled, alas, by idiots like Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain—that the US is indeed at war with all of Islam. It is a strategy to be pursued only as an absolute last resort, if even then.

Needless to say, none of these choices is a happy one. Some real diplomacy is called for, then, to see how cooperative the Zardari government can truly be made to be, and how much actual steel can be packed into the velvet gloves of negotiation. The US has provided nearly $18 billion in military and economic aid in the decade since 9/11; its continuation (or not) could be a bargaining chip, but expect Congressional criticism of continuing the assistance regardless of what path the Pakistanis take: both from those who object to the notion of foreign aid in general (especially to a Muslim country) and from those who expect a little more quid pro quo bang for their buck.

Killing Osama bin Laden had great symbolic value and provided the Obama administration a short-term bump in poll numbers. But the raid has already faded from the public consciousness, the approval ratings have dwindled back down to where they were in April, and US-Pakistani relations are marked with an even more profound skepticism on both sides than in the past. Dealing with bin Laden may have been a walk in the park compared with negotiating this minefield.

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