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Washington's Pakistan Meltdown

How the U.S. and Pakistan became the dysfunctional nuclear family of international relations.

| Thu Oct. 18, 2012 2:01 PM EDT

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

The United States and Pakistan are by now a classic example of a dysfunctional nuclear family (with an emphasis on "nuclear"). While the two governments and their peoples become more suspicious and resentful of each other with every passing month, Washington and Islamabad are still locked in an awkward post-9/11 embrace that, at this juncture, neither can afford to let go of.

Washington is keeping Pakistan, with its collapsing economy and bloated military, afloat but also cripplingly dependent on its handouts and US-sanctioned International Monetary Fund loans. Meanwhile, CIA drones unilaterally strike its tribal borderlands. Islamabad returns the favor. It holds Washington hostage over its Afghan War from which the Pentagon won't be able to exit in an orderly fashion without its help. By blocking US and NATO supply routes into Afghanistan (after a US cross-border air strike had killed 24 Pakistani soldiers) from November 2011 until last July, Islamabad managed to ratchet up the cost of the war while underscoring its indispensability to the Obama administration.

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At the heart of this acerbic relationship, however, is Pakistan's arsenal of 110 nuclear bombs which, if the country were to disintegrate, could fall into the hands of Islamist militants, possibly from inside its own security establishment. As Barack Obama confided to his aides, this remains his worst foreign-policy nightmare, despite the decision of the US Army to train a commando unit to retrieve Pakistan's nukes, should extremists seize some of them or materials to produce a "dirty bomb" themselves.

Two Publics, Differing Opinions

Pakistan's military high command fears the Pentagon's contingency plans to seize its nukes. Following the clandestine strike by US SEALs that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad in May 2011, it loaded elements of its nuclear arsenal onto trucks, which rumbled around the country to frustrate any possible American attempt to grab its most prized possessions. When Senator John Kerry arrived in Islamabad to calm frayed nerves following Bin Laden's assassination, high Pakistani officials insisted on a written US promise not to raid their nuclear arsenal. He snubbed the demand.

Since then mutual distrust between the two nominal allies—a relationship encapsulated by some in the term "AmPak"—has only intensified. Last month, for instance, Pakistan became the sole Muslim country to officially call on the Obama administration to ban the anti-Islamic 14-minute video clipInnocence of Muslims, which depicts the Prophet Muhammad as a womanizer, religious fraud, and pedophile.

While offering a bounty of $100,000 for the killing of Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, an Egyptian-American Christian producer of the movie, Pakistan's Railways Minister Ghulam Ahmad Bilour called on al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban to be "partners in this noble deed." Prime Minister Raja Ashraf distanced his government from Bilour's incitement to murder, a criminal offense under Pakistani law, but did not dismiss him from the cabinet. The US State Department strongly condemned Bilour's move.

Pakistan also stood out as the only Muslim state whose government declared a public holiday, "Love the Prophet Muhammad Day," to encourage its people to demonstrate against the offending movie. The US Embassy's strategy of disarming criticism with TV and newspaper ads showing President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemning "the content and the message" of the film failed to discourage protesters. In fact, the demonstrations in major Pakistani cities turned so violent that 23 protesters were killed, the highest figure worldwide.

Taking advantage of the government's stance, proscribed jihadist organizations made a defiant show of their continued existence. In Lahore, the capital of Punjab, the country's largest province, activists from the banned Lashkar-e Taiba (Army of the Pure), whose leader Hafiz Saeed is the target of a $10 million bounty by Washington, led protesters toward the American consulate where perimeter defenses had been breached earlier in the week. In Islamabad, activists from the Sipah-e-Sahaba (Soldiers of the Prophet's Companions), an outlawed Sunni faction, clashed with the police for hours in the course of a march to the heavily guarded diplomatic enclave.

These outlawed organizations continue to operate with impunity in an environment that has grown rabidly anti-American. A June 2012 survey by the Washington-based Pew Research Center (PRC) found that 74% of Pakistanis consider the United States an enemy. By contrast, only 12% believe that US aid helps solve problems in their country in a situation in which 89% describe their nation's economic situation as "bad."

The American public's view of Pakistan is equally bleak. February polls by Gallup and Fox News indicated that 81% of Americans had an unfavorable view of that country; just 15% held a contrary view, the lowest figure of the post-9/11 period (with only the remaining "axis of evil" states of Iran and North Korea faring worse).

Clashing Views on the War on Terror

Most Americans consider Pakistan an especially unreliable ally in Washington's war on terror. That it provided safe haven to bin Laden for 10 years before his violent death in 2011 reinforced this perception. Bin Laden's successor, Ayman Zawahiri, is widely believed to be hiding in Pakistan. So, too, are Mullah Muhammad Omar and other leaders of the Afghan Taliban.

It beggars belief that this array of Washington's enemies can continue to function inside the country without the knowledge of its powerful Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI) which reputedly has nearly 100,000 employees and informers. Even if serving ISI officers are not in cahoots with the Afghan Taliban, many retired ISI officers clearly are.

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