What’s Pakistan’s Secret?

Today’s top headline is a big Pakistan attack on Taliban rebels; Thursday Obama signed a bill tripling US aid to Pakistan, to $7.5B over five years, on the condition of more such attacks.  Sounds promising for Obama’s Afgahn war, where he has doubled our troops, for a record number of troops at war, right?

But Tuesday’s Frontline, on “Obama’s War”, was pessimistic about the Afghan war, and said the  Taliban we fight there have long gotten most support from Pakistan!  Pakistan has also long supported al-Qaeda, and seems to be where the 911 attack money came from.  Pakistan has also been the main cause of nuclear proliferation over the last few decades, arming Iran and North Korea, who tried to arm Syria, and trying to arm Libya.

Most of the worst problems for the US over the last few decades seem to have come from Pakistan, yet the US treats them nice, not like Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, or North Korea – what is their secret?  Yes Pakistan has nukes, but so did Russia and China and we never treated them this nice.   And they don’t have the sort of home political support that let’s Israel get away with so much. What gives?

Here are some supporting quotes.  On Taliban support:

United States is essentially waging a proxy war against its own ally. The Taliban are a proxy of the government of Pakistan. We are an ally of the government of Pakistan. We are fighting the Taliban. … I don’t see any clear evidence that they’re willing to go after the Afghan Taliban

There [are] elements within the Pakistani national security establishment that have traditionally regarded extremists like the Taliban as a tool of international relations, a sort of unconventional counterweight to Indian regional influence.  … They can’t quite bring themselves to let go of using those guys as a tool of foreign policy. So there’s this real disconnect in Pakistani thinking about the Taliban, where they still persist in regarding some Taliban as good and other Taliban as bad, or regarding the Taliban as OK when they stay within the bounds of just attacking India, but not OK when they start attacking something internally to Pakistan.

On Pakistan intent:

The Obama administration must not slip back into letting Pakistan present itself as an aggrieved party whose delicate national sensibilities are unjustly offended by suggestions that its army and intelligence services might be ripping off U.S. aid and covertly encouraging terrorism.   They are doing just that. …. Pakistan spread nuclear technology to Iran and North Korea and continued its support for Taliban and al-Qaeda networks for its own perverted reasons of national security and/or greed — not out of hurt pride.

On nukes:

His efforts made Dr. Khan into a national hero. In 1981, as a tribute, the president of Pakistan, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, renamed the enrichment plant the A. Q. Khan Research Laboratories. In 2003, IAEA unearthed a nuclear black market with close ties to Pakistan. It was widely believed to have direct involvement of the government of Pakistan. This claim could not be verified due to the refusal of the government of Pakistan to allow IAEA to interview the alleged head of the nuclear black market, who happened to be no other than Dr. Khan. Dr. Khan later confessed to his crimes on national television, bailing out the government by taking full responsibility. He confessed to nuclear proliferation from Pakistan to Iran and North Korea. He was immediately given presidential immunity. … In 2003, Libya admitted that the nuclear weapons-related material including these centrifuges were acquired from Pakistan.

On 911 funding:

CNN and other news outlets reported in September and October 2001 that $100,000 was wired from the United Arab Emirates to lead hijacker Mohammad Atta prior to the attacks, by Ahmed Omar Saeed (Syed) Sheikh, a long time Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence asset.[81] The report, which was later confirmed by CNN, stated that “Atta then distributed the funds to conspirators in Florida…

In addition, sources have said Atta sent thousands of dollars — believed to be excess funds from the operation — back to Syed in the United Arab Emirates in the days before September 11. Syed also is described as a key figure in the funding operation of al-Qaeda” The day after this report was published, the head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, Gen. Mahmood Ahmed, was fired from his position. Indian news outlets reported the FBI was investigating the possibility that Gen. Mahmood Ahmed ordered Saeed Sheikh to send the $100,000 to Atta, while most Western media outlets only reported his connections to the Taliban as the reason for his departure. The Wall Street Journal was one of the few Western news organizations to follow up on the story, citing the Times of India: “US authorities sought [Gen. Mahmood Ahmed’s] removal after confirming the fact that $100,000 [was] wired to WTC hijacker Mohammed Atta from Pakistan by Ahmad Umar Sheikh at the instance of General Mahmood.” The 9/11 Commission Report stated that “to date, the US government has not been able to determine the origin of the money used for the 9/11 attacks.

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  • gwern

    > Most of the worst problems for the US over the last few decades seem to have come from Pakistan, yet the US treats them nice, not like Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, or North Korea – what is their secret? Yes Pakistan has nukes, but so did Russia and China and we never treated them this nice. And they don’t have the sort of home political support that let’s Israel get away with so much. What gives?

    Pakistan is a basket-case: there’s a thin skin of self-interested or Westernized officials and intelligentsia pursuing goals vaguely similar to ours of a peaceful secular industrial state and that proportion of the public which vaguely likes those goals, and then there’s everyone else (like the Pashtun tribal hinterlands) who… don’t.

    In other words, Pakistan is Iran with an uglier Shah, nukes, & disloyal security forces (the ISI seems to be *trying* to start a war with India). Given all the grief Iran caused after the revolution, it’s worth 7 billion a year to put it off as long as possible. You could cover that with a few hedge fund annual bonuses.

  • Ali

    Being a Pakistani and a long time reader of your blog, here are my ten cents on the topic. First, Pakistan has a population of 175 million with approximately 1.5 million military personnel. It is also nuclear armed and has a strong sense of patriotism in its population. This makes it difficult for US forces to engage the enemy directly inside Pakistan. Not to mention the massive financial costs of invading and holding such a country.

    Second, without Pakistan’s cooperation it is virtually impossible to defeat Al-Qaeda or Taliban. If the ISI were to increase the support it gives to the Taliban and other groups to 1980 levels, ISAF casualties would be much higher.

    Finally, if the Pakistani state is brought under too much pressure it may well collapse opening doors to anarchy in a country that has substantial stocks of WMDs. It is also ground zero for the fight against muslim extremism – there are thousands of foreign terrorists from Uzbekistan, Chechnya, and Western China living in Tribal Areas.

    If the fight fails here, the pace of globalization may slow down in many muslim countries, and also increase violence against all targets of modernity.

    • Russia had nukes and that many people and soldiers, yet the US was willing to call them enemy. Why not do the same for Pakistan?

      • g

        Ali gave you a reason — that Pakistan’s cooperation makes a big difference to the US’s efforts to fight Islamic terrorism. I have no idea whether that (a) is right or (b) justifies the difference between how the US treats Pakistan and how it used to treat the USSR, but it seems a bit weird to reply asking for a reason without even mentioning that the person you’re addressing already gave one.

        Differences between how the US treats Pakistan now and how the US treated the USSR in the past might of course also be past/present differences rather than USSR/Pakistan differences. (For instance, after all those years of Cold War there might be a feeling that it would be best not to get into another one.)

      • Ali

        Thats because the Soviets believed and advocated an alternative to western capitalism and democracy. The Pakistani government and military do not believe in an extremist religious ideology. They are only using it as a tactic to achieve their foreign policy objectives. If you can deal with their concerns, they may well part with their tactical allies, including the Taliban.

        As for why not declare Pakistan an enemy, quite simply “the juice ain’t worth the squeeze.” There are enough ways to coerce and influence the Pakistani state to do the West’s bidding. For instance consider, the nuclear black market network has been closed, and the Pakistani Army & ISI high command purged of Jihadi sympathizers like Gen. Mahmood.

      • Thomas M. Hermann

        RH ~ “Russia had nukes and that many people and soldiers, yet the US was willing to call them enemy. Why not do the same for Pakistan?”

        Ali ~ “Finally, if the Pakistani state is brought under too much pressure it may well collapse opening doors to anarchy in a country that has substantial stocks of WMDs.”

        What part about Ali’s answer didn’t you understand? These are 2 entirely different scenarios.

      • fenn

        replies only go 2 layers deep?

        Ali, what is the general perception in Pakistan of Khan at this point?

  • Pakistan has been an ally since the Cold War, when we sided with China and against (Russian-aligned) India, and inertia can be a powerful force (I’d say it’s a big role in our good relations with Israel and still testy relations with Russia). Their government has often been “pro-American” and “moderate”, much like the autocratic Arab governments we support. The Saudis have also done much to promote anti-American radical Muslims (at one time useful fodder for the Cold War), but we still support them. Egypt is the 2nd biggest recipient of foreign aid after Israel even though Mohammed Atta & Zawahiri are/were Egyptian. The worry is that if the “pro-American” governments fall, the new regimes will be even worse.

    Matthew Yglesias had a good post on the bad incentives created by foreign aid here.

  • mitchell porter

    With respect to 9/11 funding, the story about Omar Sheikh sending money to Atta has no particular evidential basis. If you dig through Chapter 7 of the 9/11 Commission report, you will find Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) described as the man who authorizes the sending of funds, and his associates Mustafa al-Hawsawi and Ali Abdul Aziz Ali as the ones who sent money from the UAE to the hijackers in North America, sometimes by way of Ramzi Binalshibh in Germany.

    Omar Sheikh, named in the Times of India article (cited by Wikipedia) as the conduit of funds to Atta, was already a well-known terrorist – in India. He spent five years in jail there, for kidnapping three western tourists and trying to trade their release for the release of Kashmiri independence fighters; and he was himself released only because the Pakistani hijackers of an Indian Airlines flight in late 1999 demanded it. A few years later he was arrested in Pakistan for masterminding the kidnapping of Daniel Pearl, who KSM claims to have killed, so they *may* have been working together after 9/11. But there is no evidence on record that Omar Sheikh was part of the 9/11 money trail, let alone that he was doing so at the directions of the head of Pakistani intelligence (who most likely resigned, if he did resign rather than being fired, because he did not wish to assist the American war against the Taliban).

  • Bill Nelson

    And they don’t have the sort of home political support that let’s Israel get away with so much. What gives?

    What does Israel “get away” with? Defending its population?

    What gives?

    • gwern

      Well, even if we ignore the entire being-a-nuclear-power thing (which is a mite inconsistent with US views on Iraq & Iran & North Korea), and ignore the entire Palestinian mess, and even if we *also* ignore Israeli lobbying of the US political system, what Israel gets away with:

      Espionage in the US, on a level that would get any other country crucified. (The only country that comes close to Israel is China.) Fun experiment: compare the 2004 New Zealand-Israel incident with any case of Israeli spying in the US.

  • mjgeddes

    Obvious isn’t it? Think, why has so much incredible stuff come out of that region.. the plotting of 9/11, the inexplicable escape of bin laden and him eluding capture for so long, Pakistan always escaping real scrutiny, reports of a strange ‘counter force’ at work in their intelligence services, constant Taliban resurgence, undermining India, fundamentalist plots spreading around the world etc etc

    UAI at work… some fundamentalist dude programmed an unfriendly super intelligence and it’s been extrapolating fundamentalist volition for quite some time… probably hidden underground on a big high-tech server beneath some hut in a village somewhere.

  • Good questions all. And that’s to say nothing of the alleged diversion of billions in US-Pakistan military aid:

    Between 2002 and 2008, while al-Qaida regrouped, only $500 million of the $6.6 billion in American aid actually made it to the Pakistani military, two army generals tell The Associated Press.

    The account of the generals, who asked to remain anonymous because military rules forbid them from speaking publicly, was backed up by other retired and active generals, former bureaucrats and government ministers.

  • Greg Lee

    “Yes Pakistan has nukes, but so did Russia and China and we never treated them this nice.”

    In the case of Russia and China we had mental models for what would likely happen with their nukes over time and corresponding foreign-policy and military programs. In particular, stable regimes meant that we could contemplate negotiation, MAD, non-nuclear proxy wars, etc. In contrast, we have no clear picture what would happen to Pakistan’s nukes after regime change, so anything that extends the status quo looks like a good idea.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    Path-dependencies. There is not particular logic to any of the US attitudes to second tier contries (the attitudes to the great powers is driven by standard great power politics). Which is why Iran is a enemy and Saudi Arabia is a friend.

    This gets locked in because the negative consequences of “losing a friend” are clear and immediate; no matter how badly a country is behaving as an ally, if could always behave worse. On the other hand, the consequences of “losing an enemy” are not so evident, and the gains are more nebulous. Confronted with these immediate costs, the temptation is to let allies get away with most things. So they may drift away from us, but as long as they proclaim their friendship, we are not willing to take the immediate cost of “losing a friend”, no matter how bad they are.

    Add the same dynamic on the other sides, and most state friendships and enimities are self-perpetuating, diverging from rational state self-interest.

  • even economists buy into the nuclear sovereignty model of international relations? what hope do the rest of us have?

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