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Barely Friends, Few Benefits

Will Pakistan ever be the ally we need it to be?

Earlier this year, the relationship between Pakistan and the United States suddenly seemed to get a lot more productive. In the first two months of 2010, Pakistani security forces arrested six individuals touted as senior Afghan Taliban leaders. In January, administration officials claimed that CIA drones had targeted and killed Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, in the tribal area of South Waziristan. And in February, American and Pakistani intelligence operatives netted Mullah Baradar, described as the Afghan Taliban’s military commander, in a raid in Karachi. Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer who is now with the Brookings Institution, said Baradar’s arrest represented “a sea change in Pakistani behavior.”

But this newfound helpfulness was only a mirage. The trove of military and intelligence documents released in late July by WikiLeaks has dashed any optimism that Pakistan’s intelligence agencies turned a corner this year. (And Mehsud, it emerged, in fact survived the drone attack.) The leaked reports show that as recently as 2008, Pakistani spooks working for the Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, were allegedly orchestrating suicide bombings in Afghanistan and hatching plots to kill GIs with poisoned booze. ISI officers also reportedly counseled Taliban fighters in attacks against American soldiers. Their support for the Taliban, in other words, was not only moral, but tactical, too.

The leaks offer the clearest illustration yet that even as Pakistan received billions of dollars in American aid, it was actively sabotaging the war in Afghanistan. Yet the United States can’t afford to dump Pakistan—which means that nothing substantive is going to change.

Last summer, I met with a special ops officer who compared America’s relationship with Pakistan to the recurring “Peanuts” gag in which Lucy offers to hold a football so that Charlie Brown can kick it. “Every time Charlie Brown thinks she’s going to hold the football still, and each and every time, she pulls it away just as he’s about to kick,” he said. Shaking his head incredulously, he added: “And then he just lines up to try and kick it again and again.” That some observers, including myself, had begun to believe that Pakistan had reformed its behavior in early 2010 now seems preposterous.

Pakistan’s political and military elite have long considered Afghanistan a key part of the battlefield in their existential conflict with India. The Taliban, in their view, represented a bulwark against Indian encroachment in Afghanistan. And so ever since the Taliban were chased out of Kabul in October 2001, the ISI has been working to return its turbaned partners to power. Unless Islamabad’s anxieties about India were addressed, the idea that Pakistan might sincerely partner with the U.S. to defeat the Taliban was only a canard.

Long before Obama announced that the U.S. would begin withdrawing from Afghanistan in July 2011, the word among Pakistani politicians, security analysts, and opinion-makers was that the military and intelligence establishment was hedging its bets in preparation for an American departure. (In Pakistan, “hedging one’s bets” is a euphemism for backing the insurgency.) As the Wikileaks documents indicate, U.S. troops have been dealing with “PAK MIL/ISI [being] likely involved with the border crossings” of militants for years.  To at least some in the American military, Pakistan’s duplicity was just another known condition on the battlefield.

There is, of course, the possibility that Pakistan did fully commit to supporting the United States against the Taliban earlier this year, and that the leaks document a policy that has since changed. Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, told the Times, “The documents circulated by WikiLeaks do not reflect the current on-ground realities” (a not-so-subtle admission that the revelations were accurate once.) It’s true that Pakistan’s national security calculus has undergone a strategic shift over the past 18 months, ever since the Pakistani Taliban began challenging the central government and targeting army and ISI installations. But Taliban operating out of Pakistan and “Pakistani Taliban” are not necessarily one and the same. What these leaked reports document is the ISI’s backing of the Afghan Taliban, their longtime allies. If this support continued between 2001 and 2009 (the most recent date cited in the leaks), why should we believe that it suddenly evaporated in the past year?

Yet while the Wikileaks revelations have confirmed long-held assumptions about Pakistan’s deception, they will likely have little impact on its relationship with the United States. The United States is heavily dependent upon Pakistan to provide access for NATO fuel and supply vehicles, as well as intelligence cooperation for the CIA’s drone program in the tribal areas. Islamabad also believes that it’s not in its national interest for Hamid Karzai—whose government maintains warm relations with India—to succeed. Meanwhile, the military and intelligence operatives on the ground identify more strongly with the Taliban’s core values than with ours. No amount of “stern messages” from senior Pentagon, CIA, and White House officials will alter these underlying dynamics. Islamabad knows how much the United States relies on Pakistan’s facade of collaboration, and therefore sees no incentive to cooperate fully.

Even if public and congressional pressure forces the White House to rethink its Afghanistan policy, Pakistan will still play a pivotal role. Adopting the so-called “Biden plan”—that is, focusing more narrowly on targeting al Qaeda rather than taming the wider Afghan insurgency—would entail a greater reliance on Special Forces and drone strikes. This strategy would require a similar level of assistance from Islamabad as the current counterinsurgency plan, which depends on Pakistan preventing fighters from crossing its borders into Afghanistan. Either way, we’ll be sprinting towards the football, hoping, despite all evidence to the contrary, that this time Lucy won’t cheat.

Nicholas Schmidle, a fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of To Live or to Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan.