Bin Laden episode the true test of US-Pakistan ties

Infidelity, drugs and money woes – the perfect storm in the coupling of US and Pakistan. But like most relationships, patience may make this long-term pairing endure.

Powered by automated translation

Most of the questions in the aftermath of the Osama bin Laden killing on Sunday night seem to be focused on the relationship between Pakistan and the United States, with good reason.

The closest thing to a soap opera that follows a dysfunctional couple rocked by infidelity, drugs and far too much (or too little) money changing hands, the Pakistan-US equation is titillating stuff for world affairs junkies.

Today, condemnation of Pakistan flows fast and deep from many world capitals.

In Washington, where frustration with America's own problems in Afghanistan find an easy target in Islamabad's ginger and hesitating support, Pakistan is seen by many to have given support and succour to bin Laden all these years. For Americans, this is as close to unforgivable as it comes.

It's worth asking whether this episode, no matter the truth, will mark the end of the torrid love affair between Pakistan and the US. Some regional allies would certainly like it to.

In India, Pakistan's hostile and much larger neighbour, there's a growing chorus that wants to press home the advantage. Indians have used the terror argument as a primary instrument in a diplomatic blitzkrieg against Pakistan - especially since Pakistani terrorists attacked Mumbai on November 26, 2011.

New Delhi would love nothing more than to be able to deal with a Pakistan that did not have American backing. The bin Laden killing offers a golden opportunity for Indian diplomacy to seek to widen the divide between Washington and Islamabad.

The most important calculus, then, may be the one taking place within the confines of the CIA, the Pentagon,and the White House.

The speech given by the US president, Barack Obama, in which he announced the killing of bin Laden offered some clues on what direction that calculus will take. The speech by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered some more. But perhaps the most telling was the press conference made by counter-terrorism czar John Brennan.

Without any of the sentimental extras that US officials often seek to infuse into their descriptions of Pakistan, Mr Brennan described in detailed precision the limits to what the US was willing to share with Pakistan, and the depth to which America was committed to the country. Obama administration officials have consistently, despite having made some major mistakes along the way, maintained the need for a long-term and deep relationship with Pakistan.

Some of the belligerent tones being heard in the US capital and other places with regards to Pakistan is sourced in a superficial and limited understanding of two important aspects of the US-Pakistan relationship.

The first is Pakistani leverage. Pakistan, despite its own dysfunction, is instrumental to the outcomes that the US wants to achieve in Afghanistan as it begins to prepare for a significant ramping down of its presence there. For ethnic, linguistic and geographic reasons, Pakistan has unsurmountable advantages in terms of its ability to exercise influence in Afghanistan. This is partly why India is so very keen to sustain an American presence there that backs Indian interests, rather than Pakistani.

The second is the depth of investment the democratic administration of Mr Obama has made in Pakistan. Forget the $15 billion (Dh55billion) or so that has been provided to the Pakistani military and government. Mr Obama's establishment of an Af-Pak unit dedicated to dealing with the region was a stroke of administrative and policy genius.

The now deceased head of this unit, Richard Holbrooke, engaged some of the finest policy minds available to try to understand what makes Pakistan tick. One inescapable conclusion was the need for a sustained democratic equation in Pakistan. The fact that it has been two-term Republican presidents that always seemed to back military dictators had to have helped the argument—Ronald Reagan supported Zia ul Haq's 11 year dictatorship and George W Bush supported Pervez Musharraf's nine year reign.

While Pakistani leverage is a short-term tactical issue, and matters only as long as there is a large US presence in Afghanistan, Pakistan's own political economy is a long strategic one. A state with as deep a set of problems as Pakistan does not reform overnight. Pakistanis have often lost patience far too quickly, and allowed the military to take over out of sheer frustration. In short, Pakistan needs help to reform.

It seems that despite the obvious implications of bin Laden having found a home deep inside Pakistan, the Americans have not lost patience yet. That may come, depending on what surfaces about Pakistan's involvement in harbouring the al Qa'eda head. But good money is on the US continuing to exercise patience with Pakistan, both because it has no other choice, and because it just might be the right thing to do.

Mosharraf Zaidi is a Pakistani analyst and policy development adviser.