“Keep Your Friends Close, But Your Enemies Closer”

The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II really are repositories of wisdom.  Don Michael Corleone is close-up in a man’s face when he shares this wisdom, and because the man is a dullard he doesn’t realize that Michael is giving away that he will soon try to kill him.

Countries aren’t people, as foreign policy “foxes” must constantly remind foreign policy “lions,” so while it is possible to keep an enemy state close, you can’t take it down in some mafia-style hit.  Where possible, it is most-efficient (and just) if long-ranging and nerve-wracking to apply a variety of tools to isolate, weaken and remove the bad elements and to aid, order and further the good.  So it seems that the Obama Administration has decided to leave the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence‘s profound betrayal of our alliance an open secret, and take gradual but meaningful strategic steps to degrade both its desire and capacity to engage in Islamist extremism.  This is a continuation of Bush Administration policy, but in Obama’s hands it appears both more-forceful and more-discreet.

It is very likely that elements of the Inter-Services Intelligence (heretofore the ISI) knew that Osama bin Laden was hiding out in Abbottabad, just outside commuting distance from Islamabad.  What’s more, Abbottabad is a garrison city; further, it is home to the Pakistan Military Academy.  Speculation has long since brought us around to the grim joke that bin Laden was able to move into a compound specifically designed for his habitation less than 1 mile from the Academy because the ISI, long-regarded in the West as a den of Islamists, was protecting him there.  Declan Walsh wrote a fascinating exposition on the ISI for the UK newspaper the Guardian.

Of course, “Pakistan” is not monolithic; the population is too large for its politics and culture to be characterized by the radical politics, maelstrom of persecution and disasters both natural and man-made that understandably dominate the headlines.  Back in January I wrote about my belief that Pakistan is slowly but dramatically coming apart.  My basic observation stands: When a bodyguard of Salman Taseer, the outspoken but respected governor of the country’s largest province can assassinate the man he was sworn to protect on his own motion because of a political disagreement, admit to that shocking crime (and later expressing self-satisfaction about it in court), and possibly get off for it because of a groundswell of popular sympathy, that is a society in chaos.  (Christopher Hitchens wrote a stirring criticism of the incoherent evil animating Salman Taseer’s murderer, and other radical Islamists like him.)

Then there is the matter of Pakistan’s 90 suspected nuclear weapons and large reserve of weapons-grade nuclear material.  Even considering the prospect of an Iranian bomb, Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and materials probably constitute the greatest risk for an act of nuclear terrorism, whether owing to the complicity or incapacity of Pakistan’s military or intelligence apparatus.

Pakistani intelligence officials were complicit in hiding the leader of al-Qaeda, the man responsible for pushing that terrorist organization into a prolonged campaign of mass murder aimed at the United States, including not only his role as one of the visionaries of the September 11th attacks but also his lead agency in developing plots for more acts of terrorism.  What should the position of the United States be on an outrage like that?  How should the United States regard Pakistan in light of its nuclear arsenal and weapons-grade nuclear materials?  The Liberal Ironist actually thinks that the Obama Administration has taken the right tack for current circumstance–as embodied in Senator John Kerry’s admittedly-tense goodwill mission to Pakistan.  And what good is keeping Pakistan in our good graces in the face of affronts as serious as these?  Frankly, any amount of Pakistani cooperation that can be secured is worth it, since this country is the real hotbed–and yes, its state the most-serious contemporary sponsor–of terrorism.  The idea is to pretend that the ridiculous safe sequestration of bin Laden in one of Pakistan’s core military sites was neither the result of distressing incompetence nor of deliberate malfeasance, but merely an unfortunate oversight.  I suspect they know better–recall that Director of Central Intelligence Leon Panetta said that he handn’t informed the ISI of the Navy SEAL assault on bin Laden’s compound because he thought there was a serious chance someone in the ISI would leak word of the attack to al-Qaeda–but there is nothing to gain from drawing a line in the sand with Pakistan entirely on the other side.  Its better that the Pakistani military have something to lose if that happens.

I endorse this policy of trying to maintain the uneasy relationship with Pakistan, rather than shifting to a policy of confrontation and more-visible forms of brinksmanship, for 3 reasons–combating al-Qaeda terrorism, maintaining the integrity of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and playing what part we can to relax tensions between Pakistan and its stronger and rapidly-developing rival, India.  While each of these 3 interests is linked to the other 2, they serve independently as rationales for trying to maintain as positive of a working relationship with Pakistan as possible.

1st, in light of Pakistan’s anti-terrorism cooperation, remember that Pakistani troops have engaged the Taliban along their Afghan border region in difficult battles in the past.  They may have done this because of our close observation of the situation, because of political disagreement among Pakistan’s generals or because the Taliban had proved too volatile as an ally; in any case it is better to be able to be able to equip and compel the Pakistani military to deploy even for intermittent offensives against the Taliban; this keeps the Taliban pinned down fighting the Pakistani Army rather than the government of Afghanistan–and it keeps Pakistan’s military focused on a fight with Islamist militants rather than an arms race against India or yet-another war in Kashmir.

2nd, no cooperation with Pakistan means no cooperation with Pakistan ever over the integrity of its nuclear materials, and a diminution of what inclination they have to safeguard their nuclear weapons technology against…whoever.  (Remember, even before our invasion of Iraq, Pakistan’s chief nuclear scientist’s role in selling nuclear technology to North Korea, Iran and Libya–but not WMD-free Iraq–came to light.  The story you may not have heard is that the Pakistani government ended his house arrest in early 2009, having never formally charged him with a crime.)

3rd, cutting ties with Pakistan could have a highly-variable long-term effect upon that country’s relations with India, its bitter rival since both countries attained independence from the British Empire in 1947.  All that could be said is that US dismissal of Pakistan would almost certainly facilitate instability between these conventional rivals.  Having lost a major benefactor that sees India as a natural ally, Pakistan’s most-logical replacement is an authoritarian and increasingly-revisionist state that has always seen India as a potential competitor–the People’s Republic of China.  Some might say that arming both India and Pakistan accomplishes an arms race between the 2 countries in fact, but both countries’ regular reliance upon the United States to provision them with arms and planes is a good thing because it allows us to soften a sense of relative vulnerability on the part of either country through negotiated military aid.  While I think everyone (including political elites in an increasingly-weak, -marginalized and -paranoid Pakistan) agrees that India is both the stronger and more-logical ally of the United States, both Indian and Pakistani officials must understand the US interest in maintaining good relations with Pakistan’s government, and both must understand the potential loss of military aid from the United States risked if either state initiated a war–and each government knows that the other knows it.  This certainly isn’t a fool-proof strategy, or even one without an inherent instability to it given rational behavior by all powers in question, but the icy-cold peace that has prevailed in the Indian subcontinent since the September 11, 2001 terror attacks vindicate military interdependence as a foreign policy with pacifying effects comparable to those of economic interdependence (though, alas, surely not as sustainable).

I spoke to a friend in my graduate program studying International Relations with a concentration in terrorism the week bin Laden was killed–specifically, to ask if he thought that, on some level, the problem of al-Qaeda had always been rooted in Pakistan.  “Yes!” he said.  This whole thing has convinced me more-strongly than before that the War in Afghanistan is about keeping Pakistan pinned down so it can’t use Afghanistan as a terrorist training ground.”

“Yes, I agree…So, you think we should still maintain our relations with Pakistan?” I hazarded.

“Absolutely,” he said.  “I mean, yeah, for bin Laden to have been located for years so close to Pakistan’s military academy, some people in government there must have known he was there–but there’s nothing to be gained from saying ‘We know you were protecting him, so now we’re not going to deal with you anymore!’  It’s simple: If we say that and break-off relations with Pakistan, there’s nothing to be gained from it.  There’s a lot to lose.  So, our best hand is just to have the Pakistani government embarrassed about this, to maintain our forces in Afghanistan so they don’t have a 3rd-party country in which to train militants to attack India or the West, and to use the carrot-and-stick approach with the government to try to keep it on our side.”

That picture may sound bleak, but the alternative is surely worse–the prompt shift of Pakistan to either a military dependence upon China, or the removal of material support and political cover for political or military leaders who want good relations with the West, thus leaving the Islamists the political space to consolidate their relationship with Islamist extremists as an unraveling country’s only means of military self-help.  The Liberal Ironist applauds the Obama Administration for following a course of action that may seem weak or incoherent at a superficial view, but which reflects the sense of strategy, discretion, and the cast-iron stomach moderate policy sometimes requires in a violent and uncertain World.


3 thoughts on ““Keep Your Friends Close, But Your Enemies Closer”

    1. liberalironist Post author

      Well, I did use the term “enemy.” I still think our dominant strategy is to try to use a combination of carrots and sticks to motivate the desired behavior from Pakistan’s military and the ISI. A significant military commitment to Afghanistan and a close economic and military relationship with India, combined with the highest level of intelligence cooperation and military aid with Pakistan possible, represents the best means I can see for simultaneously frustrating Pakistan’s revisionist ambitions and maintaining its military strength as the skeletal structure of the state, preferably with generals who appreciate the benefits of their relationship with us dominant.

      I’ll say again, as I did in my post, that whether this complex and expensive strategy (boxing Pakistani militancy in and assisting its military to keep it strong but partially-dependent) is sustainable is a known unknown. This news article you just showed me–on the morning of this post, no less–demonstrates pretty powerfully either the kind of cause or the kind of symptom that could attend a final breakdown of trust and/or common purpose between the Pakistani military and the United States over the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. But while aiding and working with Pakistan’s military is expensive, it isn’t really risky; while it is a source of frustration for them it doesn’t really prevent cooperation with India and Afghanistan whose governments each understand our interest and the benefits of good relations. Meanwhile, we know exactly what we’d be giving up in–terms of military and intelligence cooperation, greater freedom to act unilaterally to attack high-priority al-Qaeda targets inside Pakistan, and (somewhat) moderated strategic behavior on Pakistan’s part–if we were to call a spade a spade.

      Pakistan’s perception of China’s potential as a benefactor, as the article notes, is a good example of a factor that could remove the carrots from our hands. If there is no way to persuade China not to form a closer alliance with Pakistan–and there may not be–then the alliance with Pakistan could end quite suddenly and unpleasantly. That would be bad news not only for us, but for both Afghanistan and India.

  1. Pingback: Libya’s Mad Dog Dictator Bears His Fangs: Now is the Time for the United States to Get Involved | The Liberal Ironist

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