The Abbottabad Commission Gets Realist

July 23, 2013

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When President Obama made the decision to launch a raid to kill Osama bin Laden, he knew this would further damage U.S. relations with Pakistan. Indeed, the President ordered that additional forces be made ready in the event of a firefight between the Navy SEALs conducting the raid and the Pakistani military. As my colleague Mark Stout noted last week, in doing so the U.S. made the best of a bad set of options: avoid further damage to the relationship, but fail to accomplish a core national security objective; or run roughshod over Pakistan and take out the al-Qaeda amir. From an American policy perspective, it’s difficult to argue with the decision. Even the Abbottabad Commission, which called the U.S. raid an “act of war,” acknowledged that it was an understandable one for the United States.  Indeed, one of the most notable elements of the Commission’s report is the way in which its examination of the raid was grounded in a relatively transparent assessment of each country’s national interests.


“Where Do We Stand?”

Anyone who has ever been in or on the cusp of a relationship that remains ill-defined will recognize that question. It’s more common among couples than countries, but the U.S. and Pakistan have had several bad marriages to one another. Each of the previous ones ended in an ugly divorce and the current one has been quite volatile. No one expects it to last, but at least this time officials in both countries appear to understand that normalized relations should be their goal. Both sides have been guilty of overplaying the nature of the current relationship during the past twelve years, pretending there are more and deeper areas of convergence than actually exist. The Commission’s report said publicly what numerous Pakistani (and American) interlocutors say privately: the two countries are not natural allies; their priorities are not aligned and their objectives are sometimes in conflict when it comes to how each views various sub-sets of militants in Pakistan; and officials in both countries raise expectations and fuel crises by failing to be transparent about these facts. They also acknowledged that the bilateral relationship nevertheless remains a necessary one, something on which US policymakers by and large agree.

As the report made clear, some of those the Commission interviewed from the military and intelligence services indicated they miscalculated the nature of the relationship, calling the raid a “stab in the back.” That accusation speaks to the sort of emotional approach that people in both countries have too often taken. Those in the U.S. complain that Pakistan is stabbing America in the back by accepting its aid and then supporting militants that kill U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. Pakistanis complain that the U.S. calls their country an important ally and then repeatedly violates its sovereignty with drone strikes and introduces spies onto its streets. The fact is both sides are pursuing their interests. The U.S.-Pakistani relationship is a particularly frustrating verification of realist principles.  Indeed, the report even noted that given the ISI’s failure to deliver in terms of the search for bin Laden, its support for various militant entities (historical, according to the Commission) and the consequent lack of U.S. faith in it as a partner, the raid was understandable from an American perspective. Moreover, the Commission condemned the military and ISI for failing to assess U.S. intent given the state of affairs. The report’s authors appear to know where the U.S. and Pakistan stand. They don’t like it. But they understand it.


What Should We Do?

That was another key question the Commission asked. Last week I wrote about its findings vis-à-vis domestic reforms. A fair amount of the report was as concerned with how the U.S. managed to mount a raid as it was with how bin Laden remained hidden for so long. This seemed to surprise some in the U.S., but it shouldn’t have. Through an American optic, bin Laden’s presence was the story. From a Pakistani perspective, that was only one half of the humiliation. America’s ability to infiltrate intelligence officers into the country to find bin Laden, followed by several helicopters full of commandos to kill him, was equally galling. Individuals can make value judgments about equating the two, but it won’t change the reality. Given that, it was natural for the Commission to explore the geopolitical side of the equation.

At present, Pakistan’s defense policy considers India to be its only major military adversary. The report leaves the door open as to whether that policy should be revised to account for a future U.S. threat, which should not shock anyone who understands basic international relations. The Commissioners also ponder whether the country needs to re-think its national security policy. Specifically, they ask whether, if Pakistan cannot counter a U.S. threat militarily or fight a two-front war, it needs to think about taking other actions, including against the Islamist militant infrastructure, in order to reduce the nature of these threats. The soundness of this logic depends partly on the degree of leverage one believes the U.S. enjoys and its readiness to use that leverage. It also overlooks the more immediate and deleterious nature of internal threats to Pakistan from militancy. Nor do the Commissioners speak for the security establishment. It is unclear whether the military leadership agrees on the extent and nature of the threats Pakistani-based militants present or what to do about them.

As I wrote last week, the fundamentals of militant-state interaction won’t change radically in the near term and the United States cannot force strategic steps Pakistan is not yet ready or able to take. It is in Washington’s interest to encourage and abet any reforms that could create the internal conditions necessary for action against militancy. However, in addition to inducements and support, the U.S. can also facilitate, choose not to facilitate or impose a spectrum of negative outcomes at the bilateral and international levels in pursuit of its objectives. Leverage must be used judiciously, as part of a policy of patient, but firm, engagement. Based on the Commission’s report, one suspects its authors would appreciate such an assessment, at least objectively speaking.


Stephen Tankel is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is an Assistant Professor at American University and a non-resident scholar in the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is the author of Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba.

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One thought on “The Abbottabad Commission Gets Realist

  1. ‘It is unclear whether the military leadership agrees on the extent and nature of the threats Pakistani-based militants present or what to do about them.’

    This is the most important question. What we can gather from General Kayani’s speeches, his calls for political support for military operations and the army’s training and new warfighting doctrine is that there is a significant appreciation of the threat stemming from Islamist militants operating in the country. Having suffered tens of thousands of fatalities and incalculable economic and political damage over a decade, this change hardly says much about army’s intellectual and martial vitality but its still good news.

    However I think this does not mean that Pakistan sees eye to eye with the US on doctrine or strategy in the war. Such differences are inevitable given the enormous variation in their respective geostrategic, political, economic and cultural situations (not to mention major debates exist within the US). I think the Americans will need to employ considerable political discipline, strategic insight and military pragmatism when manipulating Pakistan towards achieving their interests. Otherwise we’ll see more of the same strategic dysfunction.

    This will include making uncomfortable decisions. For instance, selling Pakistan significant numbers of F-16s and AH-1s on easy terms is likely to offend India, but is necessary to reassure Pakistan’s security interests in the east, which is the only way to free up more Pakistan troops for larger and longer deployments in the west. Moreover, such commitment of equipment and expertise is the surest way of creating leverage. If the Pakistani military feels it owes a considerable portion of its combat capability to goodwill from the US through the provision of spares and replacements it will be more obliging in other aspects of the relationship.

    I think US policy makers fall short of tolerance for and understanding of Pakistan’s strategic calculus. The Pakistani military is probably the most competent ally the US has in the Muslim world (perhaps with the exception of Turkey) but I think its ability to dismantle groups such as the Laskhar-e-Taiba is consistently overestimated. Pakistan is a big country, geographically and demographically speaking (with 2/3rd of the population of the Arab world), fractured by deep-rooted ethnic and religious divisions. The Pakistani army itself is a representative mixture of these ethnic and sectarian groups – unlike the tribal based, internal security oriented armies of other Muslim countries. Consequently, it cannot and will not act as brutally and effectively against internal militants as say the armies of Saudi Arabia or Jordan which is perhaps what the US expected (though it can undoubtedly confront external threats better). It is also a bad idea to assume Pakistan can act against terrorists through simply law enforcement the way a developed state can.

    The aid Pakistan has received is not going to change these realities. To consider American assistance to Muslim countries in the wider context, Egypt has been getting more aid than Pakistan for decades in exchange for little more than keeping the peace with Israel. Pakistan on the other hand has been fighting a war in difficult human and geographical terrain. A war which has arguably already been lost by US/NATO forces next door despite their access to significantly greater resources. This is not to say that Pakistani strategy has been particularly forward or efficient or that it has been careful with the aid granted to it in the course of this war. I just feel that the Americans overestimate the effect their assistance ought to have on Pakistan’s strategic performance.

    The US is going to have to do an objective cost-benefit analysis to decide how much is needed and how much it is willing to invest to achieve its goals through this relationship. My own impression is that American strategic commitment to Pakistan has so far failed to live up its rhetoric. Personality I am not convinced that US interests in the country are sufficient for it to invest more, particularly in this age of economic austerity. However in such a case expectations need to be lowered to achieve a functional balance in the relationship. Alternatively, if the Americans are committed to seeing all Islamic militants groups in Pakistan destroyed, they will have to provide more economic and military assistance, probably even absorb Indian political pressure. Lastly, they’ll have to accept that Pakistan alone will determine the nature and tempo of this fight. This is to ensure that the army does not go into an Algerian-like state of paranoid aversion to foreign influence and that the civilian populace does not see the army as an extension of American foreign policy (which is a serious hindrance to an army sensitive to popular pressures). Pressure will need to be applied through closed channels, however I think the most effective pressure will be the actions of the militant groups themselves who are unfortunately (fortunately?) likely to continue giving the Pakistani state reasons to mobilize against them even after the Western withdrawal from Afghanistan.

    I hope you don’t mind me unloading my thoughts here.