x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Obama administration divided over future of US-Pakistan relationship

Despite US unhappiness over the discovery of bin Laden's hideout in a city near Pakistan's capital, every available sanction, from limiting US aid to unleashing more unilateral ground attacks against terrorist targets, jeopardises existing Pakistani help in keeping US enemies at bay.

The flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, the ship where Osama bin Laden was given a burial ritual after he was killed in a raid by US Navy Seals in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
The flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, the ship where Osama bin Laden was given a burial ritual after he was killed in a raid by US Navy Seals in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

WASHINGTON // Two weeks after the death of Osama bin Laden, the administration of President Barrack Obama remains uncertain and divided over the future of its relationship with Pakistan, according to senior US officials.

The discovery of the al Qa'eda leader in a city near Pakistan's capital has pushed many in the administration beyond any willingness to tolerate Pakistan's ambiguous connections with extremist groups. After years of ineffective American warnings, many US officials are concluding that a change in policy is long overdue.

Those warnings are detailed in a series of contemporaneous written accounts, obtained by The Washington Post, chronicling three years of often-contentious meetings involving top officials of both countries. Confirmed by US and Pakistani participants, the exchanges portray a circular debate in which the US repeatedly said it had irrefutable proof of ties between Pakistani military and intelligence officials and the Afghan Taliban and other insurgents, and warned that Pakistani refusal to act against them would exact a cost.

US officials have said they have no evidence top Pakistani military or civilian leaders were aware of bin Laden's location or authorised any official support, but his residence within shouting distance of Pakistani military installations has brought relations to a crisis point.

Some officials, particularly in the White House, have advocated strong reprisals, especially if Pakistan continues to refuse access to materials left behind by US commandos who scooped up all the paper and computer drives they could carry during their deadly 40-minute raid on bin Laden's compound.

"You can't continue business as usual," said one of several senior administration officials who discussed the sensitive issue only on the condition of anonymity. "You have to somehow convey to the Pakistanis that they've arrived at a big choice."

"People who were prepared to listen to [Pakistan's] story for a long time are no longer prepared to listen," the official said.

But few officials are eager to contemplate the alternatives if Pakistan makes the wrong choice. No one inside the administration, the official said, "wants to make a fast, wrong decision".

Every available option - from limiting US aid and official contacts, to unleashing more unilateral ground attacks against terrorist targets - jeopardises existing Pakistani help, however undependable, in keeping US enemies at bay. Military success and an eventual negotiated settlement of the Afghanistan war are seen as virtually impossible without some level of Pakistani buy-in.

"The fact of the matter is that we've been able to kill more terrorists on Pakistani soil than just about anyplace else," Mr Obama said last week on CBS's "60 Minutes". "We could not have done that without Pakistani cooperation."

For now, the administration is in limbo, awaiting Pakistan's response to immediate questions about bin Laden and hoping it will engage in a more solid counterterrorism partnership in the future.

That outcome seems increasingly in doubt. In Pakistan, officials' pledges following the bin Laden raid that Pakistan would never let its territory be used for terrorist strikes against another country have turned to heated accusations of betrayal by the US.

There have been few high-level contacts with the Pakistanis since the raid. Telephone calls last weekend to Pakistan's military chief Gen Ashfaq Kiyani by White House national security adviser Thomas Donilon and Adm Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were said to be inconclusive at best.

No decision has been made on whether Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will make a previously scheduled trip to Pakistan later this month.

Senator John Kerry, who has served as go-between for the administration during previous clashes with Islamabad, traveled to the region late last week with a message of urgency from the White House and warnings about the unsettled "mood of Congress", one US official said.

While US lawmakers call for reconsideration of $3.2 billion (Dh11.7bn) in annual US aid, public outrage has grown in Pakistan as more details have emerged about the raid. Months in the planning, CIA Director Leon Panetta said it was conducted without informing Pakistan for fear of leaks or interference. Humiliated and angry, Pakistan's powerful army and intelligence service have warned that they will "resist" any future such operations and re-examine the broad range of bilateral cooperation.

In an emotional, closed-door session of Parliament on Friday, intelligence chief Lt Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha, head of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), offered to resign after apologizing for what he said had been an intelligence lapse. It was unclear whether he was referring to the failure to intercept US raiders or the discovery of bin Laden's years-long presence near a military garrison in the city of Abbottabad.

According to US and Pakistani officials, talk has resurfaced in Islamabad of ejecting up to 80 per cent of the approximately 120 US Special Forces troops engaged in training Pakistan's Frontier Corps soldiers. The issue was first raised earlier this year after a CIA employee with a US diplomatic passport shot and killed two Pakistanis in Lahore.

ISI control over visas issued to US diplomats and intelligence officials, eased as a gesture of cooperation last year, has been reimposed, officials said.

The feeling among senior military officers is that "these Americans have let us down, they're after us", and involvement with the United States has "ruined our army and our country," one retired senior officer said. The military view, he said, is that "we were a very noble country before we got involved in this stupid, so-called Bush war" in Afghanistan.

Washington Post