Can we trust Pakistan?

May 09, 2011

When U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden, how much damage was done to an already strained U.S. and Pakistan relationship? Is Pakistan still to be trusted? Pakistan expert Daniel Markey will chatted with readers Monday at 2 p.m.

One week after Bin Laden's death and it is clear that the central issue now is how all of this will shape the future of US-Pakistan relations. 

Before I get started answering your questions, I wanted to share two links.

First, here's one for the CFR Crisis Guide: Pakistan. It has a lot of great material in an interactive format. I believe it has been (or is being) updated in the aftermath of bin Laden's death:

Second, here's the Random House website, where you can see the "instant e-book" Beyond Bin Laden where I have a chapter on Pakistan:

Thanks for reading, and thanks for your questions,


Can we trust that Pakistan will legitimatly investigate any connections its government had to Bin Laden? Is there the prospect of further deteriorating relations between Us and Pakistan? How Bin Laden's death affect the war in Afghanistan?

There is no doubt that the Pakistanis will have an investigation, but don't expect that it will be "legitimate" in the way you might like. Their goal is to figure out if anyone will lead the US government right back to them (a smoking gun of guilt). If past is a guide, they may be willing to pin the blame on a few people, place them under house arrest. But they will not allow US government to interrogate or have access.

More generally, yes, this will send relations between Washington and Islamabad downhill. I'm sure we can get into more details as this chat goes on. But US-Pak relations were already in crisis before Bin Laden...


As for Afghanistan, this is clearly influencing perspectives of people back here in the States. Those who thought the war was more trouble than worth think so even more.

Would solving Kashmir issue resolve tensions in South Asia? What, in your view, would be the best possible solution to the Kashmir problem?

Solving Kashmir would be great for US interests. It would serve the interests of stability throughout the region, and it would probably allow far better cooperation between Washington and Islamabad. But that's like saying that solving the Israel-Palestine dispute would help relations between Israel and Syria. It is true, but it doesn't get us past the fact that it's an incredibly tough thing to do.

In general, my sense is that top leaders in India and Pakistan see benefits to normalizing their relations, but there are a lot of spoilers - like the LeT who attacked Mumbai in November 2008 - and they tend to have the upper hand.

As we consider our relations with Pakistan, how much does our diplomacy have to also consider our influence over Pakistan in stablizing relations with India? How volatile or calm are current relations between Pakistan and India?

To stick with the India angle, I would note that India and Pakistan just restarted a dialogue that had effectively been frozen since the Mumbai attack. So that's a good thing. But it is a process, not a solution. If we're lucky, neither Pakistan nor India (nor the US) will inject the Indo-Pak issue into the latest crisis, as we have enough on our hands already.

But clearly many Indians are in some way happy to see this episode play out, if only because they think it vindicates their position - that Pakistan is the global hub of terrorism.

Realistically, even if Pakistan's own investigation reveals that people in their government or military knew or even harbored Bin Laden, what will come of it?

Well, this is the nightmare - at least for me. Because we really can't continue with a  strategy of cooperation and engagement with a country that knowingly - at the seniormost levels of leadership - harbored a Bin Laden. I think it would simply mean the end of the cooperative game and we would shift to coercion and containment, sort of like the policies we have had for countries like Iran, or North Korea.

But this is very unlikely. It is far more likely that while there were some Pakistanis who knew where bin Laden was, they didn't share that information very widely, and the vast majority of the Pakistani intelligence establishment was in the dark.

The material collected from bin Laden's computers should tell us a lot more. But I suppose my sense is that if the ISI were as all-seeing as some suggest, they should have known that CIA was in Abbottabad. They also should have been able to save themselves a lot of bloodshed - hundreds of their officers have been killed, their own headquarters attacked, etc.

In the end, this is a country that has lots of different factions, likely even within its intelligence agency and certainly within the wider army.

Over 10 yrs ago, I lived in India. The Indian media constantly complained about foreign terrorists in Pakistan. The U.S. always turned a blind eye to the sprawling terrorist camps and madrassas where young children were indoctrinated. How could the U.S. trust Pakistan pre-9/11 and post 9/11???

Yes, Pakistan has been at the game of nurturing various militant and terrorist groups for decades. In an earlier era, they were sometimes called "freedom fighters," especially in the Kashmir and Afghanistan context.

The question is not whether the United States trusted Pakistan - ever - but whether it believed that its interests would be best served by some frustrating cooperation or by active confrontation or circumvention.

Time and again, Washington has concluded that even frustrating cooperation was better than the alternatives. This continues to be the case, even today.

The broader point, however, is that we need to start to see the challenge of Pakistan in and of itself. This is not just the home to al-Qaeda, but there are many other extremist and terrorist groups in its society, a fast growing nuclear arsenal, and a population that will be over 300 million by mid-century.

Given these facts, anyone who thinks that we can just turn our backs on Pakistan and leave it to solve its own mess is deluding himself. This is going to be a challence we all face for decades to come, best - in my opinion - to keep at it now rather than later.

Dr. Markey, in light of our Pakistan conundrum, what do you think it would actually take for the U.S. to accelerate pulling our troops out of Afganistan ?

We can certainly start pulling more forces out of Afghanistan, and in some ways it is possible to argue that such an action would make it easier to deal with Pakistan. Above all, we wouldn't be as dependent upon their logistical routes (through Karachi and overland into Afghanistan).

But the question is what we get from accelerating withdrawal. My sense is that we would be better off pressing our advantage gained by killing bin Laden. We can use it (along with the present military surge) to try and convince allies and adversaries in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and wider region, that we intend to root out international terrorists - including top Taliban, Haqqani network, and LeT - and that we have the capacity to pull it off. This should help our negotiating position more than looking like we are running to the exits.

That said, we have no interest in sticking around for the long run, so the faster we can pull this momentum shift and begin to find political solutions, the better.

What is your understanding of the Pakistan-China relationship? It has occurred to me that Pakistan punches far above its weight-class, according to usual national figures, and yet it seems strangely unafraid of American retaliation. Perhaps this is because of the less publicized Chinese relationship, a country that - unlike Pakistan - we really cannot effectively attack or counter?

I was recently in China asking similar questions. I think that the Pakistanis place greater emphasis on the relationship than the Chinese do. The Chinese seem to have little desire to see a breakdown in US-Pakistan relations, in part because they don't want to run the risk (or cost) of filling in the gaps we'd leave behind. For China, the best possible situation is one in which they can continue to enjoy a special relationship with Pakistan at relatively low cost, while still having enormous trade relations with the United States and a fast growing trade partnership with India. Many of the Chinese I met were worried about a possible split between Washington and Islamabad, because they didn't want to have to pick up the pieces, and they certainly didn't want to see a US-Pakistan crisis turn into a US-China crisis.

Why would Pakistan try to release the CIA director name? What good for them or our relationship?

Good question. Seems like a bad move if your interest lies in trying to patch up relations and move on.

There are many possible reasons for this step, all speculative though. But let's make one thing clear - this is just another example of how the Pakistani state and society have deep divisions within them. I can't imagine that the top civilian leaders would have wanted this to happen.

When the last station chief was outed, similar questions were raised. Only thing we can determine for sure is that some part of the ISI/army or their close affiliates see this as a way to punch back at the CIA. Last I read though, this station chief is tough and intends to stay in place...

Is Imran Khan a rising star who is more nationalist then Zardari or Nawaz Sharif?

Imran Khan is a loud voice and a nationally-recognized figure, owing to his time as a huge cricket star. But he doesn't command a strong political party, and he hasn't been able to win many votes. This points to the challenge of being a politician in Pakistan - you need a strong and disciplined organization, and there are only 2 (at the national level) who have this at the moment: Zardari's PPP and Nawaz's PML-N.

These big parties are dynastic and not internally democratic, so not great places for rising charismatic stars.

It is possible that we will start to see changes in Pakistani politics though. Their relatively more free press, communications technologies, etc. make organizing easier than in the past. But it could still take a long time, and I don't expect that Imran Khan will be the beneficiary.

The one real chance he has to catapault to power would be if the army were to take over and place him in a figurehead role. But not at all clear they seek to be in the political limelight now, and not clear they would see him as a helpful figurehead anyway.

With OBL found and killed in Pakistan, the US public opinion is going to be very high in favor of stopping aid to Pak, and rightly so. How long can US continue this alliance of convenience and keep sending billions of dollars to Pakistan just because of their geographical situation and access to military routes?

This is a very important issue. Congress is hopping mad over this - rightly so - and the American people have an impossible time accepting that a country like Pakistan could be a partner in some respects while it is an adversary or enemy in others.

Again, I believe that we need to remember the fact that Pakistan is engaged in an internal debate - sometimes it looks like a civil conflict, even a war - over its future. Our goal should be to influence the outcome of that debate in ways that serve our purposes over the long term.

So if we can use bin Laden's death as a point of leverage, finally pressing home the fact that Pakistan's military and ISI cannot work with us in some areas and against us in others, then we will have made a big step forward. I'm not optimistic, but I think it is worth a try. AND, we shouldn't expect it to be pretty - the Pakistanis who lose from seeing their government work with ours will fight every step of the way.

Right now, however, the ball is in Pakistan's court. The mixed messages from PM Gilani won't make the US congress happy, but they could have been worse. What is being said behind closed doors by the military and ISI will eventually filter out and influence US congressional action even more.

This is going to be one rough ride.


Thanks everyone for all the great questions, unfortunately at this point we all have more questions than answers about the future of US-Pakistan relations.


In This Chat
Daniel Markey
Daniel Markey is the senior fellow for India, Pakistan and South Asia at Council on Foreign Relations, where he specializes in security and governance issues in South Asia.

From 2003 to 2007, Dr. Markey held the South Asia portfolio on the SEcretary's Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. Department of State. Prior to government service, he taught in teh Department of Politics at Princeton University, where he served as executive director of Princeton's Research Program in International Security. Earlier, he was a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard's Olin Institute for Strategic Studies.
Read his full bio.
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