The Abbottabad Commission Gets Realist

July 23, 2013

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.