Pakistan, aka the "most dangerous country in the world," is exasperating its American ally once again. Is it Washington's counterterrorism ally or its nemesis? The answer may be both.
The Obama administration's discovery that Osama bin Laden — the world's most hunted man — was "hiding in plain site," as one administration official put it, at Pakistan's West Point, less than an hour's drive from the Pakistani capital, has raised the most profound questions about the U.S.-Pakistan relationship.
As U.S. counterterrorism chief John Brennan said in a briefing Monday, it was "inconceivable" that bin Laden could have been living in the luxury compound in a garrison town chock-a-block with retired military officers without having a "support network" among some military or intelligence officials within the country.
America, he vowed, would be asking some tough questions about who knew what, when, where, and how.
Good luck with that. Three administrations have asked similar questions ever since al-Qaida emerged in the late 1980's — to no avail.
Washington's relationship with Pakistan is reminiscent of the movie classic "Casablanca." In the iconic film, a Nazi general orders the good-hearted but compromised police chief to find a pretext to close the city's most popular café, "Rick's." As he shuts the café down on grounds that he is "shocked, shocked" to learn there is gambling there, a café employee approaches him with his winnings.
Brennan said more or less the same thing, in more diplomatic parlance, of course, about the tough questions that the Obama administration would be asking its Pakistani counterparts.
Some analysts don't even believe that Washington kept Pakistan in the dark on the bin Laden mission.
A former Pentagon intelligence analyst who publishes a newsletter, Nightwatch, wrote soon after President Obama disclosed that Osama had been killed that the compound "could not have been attacked from Afghanistan, him killed and his body taken by U.S. Navy SEALs flying U.S. helicopters so close to Islamabad without official Pakistani government cooperation."
Washington's insistence that Pakistan played no part in the operation and that the team flew from Afghanistan was a "cover story for Pakistani public consumption to try to avert overwhelming anti-Pakistan and anti-U.S. demonstrations," Nightwatch concludes.
But others say that Pakistan was definitely cut out of the loop because based on its previous experience with Islamabad, the administration knew that the Pakistanis would warn bin Laden about the raid if they were informed about it in advance.
Still other analysts speculate about whether Saudi Arabia, one of Pakistan's wealthiest patrons, pressured Islamabad, to turn on their eternal "guest" after Riyadh became alarmed by al-Qaida elements active on its own border in Yemen.
Washington, too, has its conspiracy theories.
We will probably learn much more about the nature of the American-Pakistani contacts prior, during and after the raid in the days ahead.
Washington has been increasingly vocal of late about its frustrations. Relations have been steadily deteriorating since early this year when Pakistani officials arrested Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor, who shot and killed two Pakistanis who he said were trying to rob him.
During a trip to Pakistan earlier this year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused Islamabad of failing to do enough in the hunt for bin Laden and suggested that the government knew where he was hiding.
And two weeks ago, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during his trip to Pakistan that relations were being strained by ties between elements in the Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI, and the Taliban in Afghanistan who were targeting and killing American forces there.
If Pakistan did not take such diplomatic woodshed chats to heart, who can blame it? Americans have known for years, based on the leak of WikiLeaks cables, that elements within the ISI were helping the Taliban kill Americans. So far, Washington has shrugged.
To be sure, the picture is complex. Pakistanis have been major victims of Islamic terror. Al-Qaida murdered Benazir Bhutto, President Zardari's wife, in 2007, and Pakistan "has yet to recover from her demise," argues Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official now at the Brookings Institution. "Al Qaeda," he recently wrote, "has been focused like a laser beam on Pakistan for the last decade."
Washington may find that it has little leverage over its difficult ally and that it must live in a world of national security half loaves. This is not a happy prospect, with American casualties mounting in Afghanistan.
Though Washington is clearly dissatisfied with its relationship with Islamabad, there seems to be no way of severing ties given the risk that such punishment might make Pakistan even more unstable than it already is.
Above all, the United States does not want this impoverished state of over 185 million people and an arsenal of an estimated 100 nuclear weapons to be taken over by militant Islamists bent on confrontation with another key American ally in the region, India.
"Sometimes," one national security official told me, "there just aren't a lot of good options, just bad and worse ones."
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