U.S.-Pakistan ties and the curse of secrecy

May 27, 2011

When President Barack Obama telephoned Pakistan’s president to say U.S. forces had found and killed bin Laden, he offered him a choice. He could say Pakistan helped find bin Laden, or that it knew nothing, according to a senior western official. Pakistan initially chose to stress the former – that it had helped – but later shifted to condemning what it called the U.S. violation of its sovereignty. 

The story illustrates the complicity between the United States and Pakistan in their deliberately ambiguous relationship. This ambiguity has its uses. It allows Washington to keep working with Pakistan in the face of angry questions at home about why Osama bin Laden was living there. And it lets Pakistan cooperate with the United States, for example on drone attacks, while trying — not particularly successfully — to minimise the domestic backlash.

But the result of that ambiguity has been a disconnect between the leadership of both the United States and Pakistan and their own people, who have little knowledge of the understandings being reached in the many high-level meetings between the two countries (and which will continue despite the deep distrust on both sides.)

As Christine Fair says  in her interview with NBR, “the Obama administration has had no illusions about Pakistan.” When it took office, it had full knowledge of Pakistan’s reluctance to eradicate militant groups, and indeed of the rapid expansion of its nuclear programme. But she added,  “the Obama administration, like past administrations, has been willing to look the other way when it deems necessary.”

And for all the furious debate in both countries about the state of U.S.-Pakistan relations,  “the leaderships of both countries know that they need each other in ways that are both humiliating and difficult to explain to publics that are ever more outraged and appalled by the perfidy of the other.”

The problem with this pattern of public fury and private reconciliation is that it leaves very little room to build trust between the two countries and almost no scope for properly informed public debate. Some secrecy is of course needed in war and diplomacy. But with the United States and Pakistan, it has become the automatic default position.

This secrecy and complicity did not just start with bin Laden and drone strikes. It goes way back to U-2 spy planes flying over the Soviet Union – Gary Powers, shot down in Russia in 1960, took off from Peshawar.  It goes back to the jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979-1989, when Washington knew  Pakistan would be forced to lie to the Soviet Union about its involvement for fear of inviting Russian retaliation on its own soil. It goes back to the United States turning a blind eye to Pakistan’s expanding nuclear weapons programme in the 1980s.

The United States is now talking about establishing new ground rules for the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. So how about introducing some openness into those new ground rules? 

Consider one example where transparency just might be less damaging than secrecy.

The United States,  which has begun tentative direct talks with representatives of the Taliban, wants Pakistan to facilitate the process of reconciliation. So does Pakistan (though they may not see eye-to-eye on how it should work.)  As far as I understand from conversations with officials from various countries, including from Pakistan, these talks are not about reaching a straight-forward power-sharing agreement with the Taliban that would allow U.S. troops to leave Afghanistan. Rather they are one part of a wider and complex process meant eventually to bring all Afghan parties into a broad political settlement.

Yet such is the secrecy around the talks that there is a serious risk that if enough people believe the Taliban are about to return to power, their opponents will prepare for civil war, building up arms and funding in a way that makes this a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As Ronald Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, writes here about his visit to the country in March,  “there is a desperate need to clarify U.S. intentions. From President Hamid Karzai to his opponents to non-political Afghans, I found everyone asking what our long-term goals are. Afghanistan is a traumatized nation after 30 years of conflict. Doubts about American intentions lead to conspiracy theories, hedging strategies and even talk of civil war if too much haste to reach a political settlement means the Taliban could be returned to power — something that many Afghans who suffered under the Taliban’s savage rule are determined to resist at all costs. ”

I have written before that there is rather greater strategic convergence between the United States and Pakistan than appears on the surface. Both want stability in Afghanistan. Pakistan – rather than wanting to reinstall a Taliban government in Kabul – has been insisting for a while it wants a stable and neutral Afghanistan.  Both the United States and Pakistan want stability in Pakistan- such a statement of the obvious that it is often overlooked.

Meanwhile, India – always the elephant in the room in discussions about Pakistan – has begun a slow but steady attempt at peace-making – its focus nowadays being very much on doing what it takes to build its economy. Pakistan desperately needs to salvage its own economy – a view, analysts say, also promoted by  army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, who sees the country’s security as coming from its economic strength. If a political settlement in Afghanistan and an India-Pakistan thaw were to open up trade across the region, all three countries would benefit and the gain of one would not necessarily be at the expense of the other  (this idea at the moment is largely aspirational – but the fact that it is on the table at all shows how much times have changed.)

So arguably, both the United States and Pakistan are roughly on the same page on what needs to happen. Yet their relations are a tactical and emotional disaster. Those long decades of secrecy have not helped.  As Najam Sethi wrote in his column, the “carefully contrived and mutually agreed ambiguity has now run aground.” 

If something needs to change in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, there is one approach that has not been tried yet.  Try breaking that habit of confining neary everything to secret understandings between military and political leaderships, and instead trusting the people of the countries affected — and that includes Afghanistan — to have a properly informed debate about what is the best way to bring stability to the region.


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On a serious note, what are your thoughts on the ongoing trial in Chicago, USA where copie of phone books and other convincing evidence is being presented proving ISI directly planned, executed and monitored the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India in 2008?

Posted by netizen | Report as abusive

[…] […]

Posted by U.S.-Pakistan ties and the curse of secrecy | Report as abusive

Pakistan must be eliminated in an effort to bring peace to the world.

Posted by littleredtop | Report as abusive

I agree here, both US and Pakistan have a longstanding and historical relationship. Tied with history, both nations have strategic convergence on issues going into the future as well. Both sides need to open debate, incourage openness.

Posted by Umairpk | Report as abusive

Pakistan has to cleanse itself off all the terrorist connections sincerely and honestly. Only then trust will emerge. Neither Afghanistan, nor India can trust Pakistan which has built a notorious reputation for being duplicitous and double dealing. Pakistan’s civilian government has to stop acting like a puppet of its military and gain power over the nation’s affairs. Only then can its neighbors work out a long term peace deal with it and then go forward with trade and other exchanges. Perpetrators of Mumbai attacks have to be brought to justice in order to earn the trust of others.

Posted by KPSingh01 | Report as abusive

Perpetrators of Mumbai attacks have to be brought to justice.

It is not going to happen. Unless you are suggesting Kayani and Pasha will be handed over in shackles at the Wagha border.
But I agree with the strategy of demanding justice. Until the core issue of Mumbai attack is resolved there can be no peace.

Posted by netizen | Report as abusive

Personally I think there is a solid barrier between the two for any openness to come to light. The two have very different aims – one is looking to protect itself from terror attacks the other is looking at consolidating its control on the region. The only way they can manage is by accepting that they are working towards different goals and will act differently and at times independently. Your enemy is not always my enemy and may even be my ally or protege. And worse both say it openly. One tricky situation.

Its a difficult balancing act and a marriage that is not on the rocks but not happy either for either side. A marriage of convenience not choice or harmony.

Posted by DaraIndia | Report as abusive

A good point. However, the situation as a whole now has become very complex. Let us try to break it down in pieces and then a straight forward scenario emerges. The American administration plan is to dig in Pakistan for a long haul and demand from Pakistan civilian and military leaders to play the ball with them since Pakistan is being amply paid for their services.

Nato armies who are also paying Pakistan for services, are being prepared for intervention raids in Pakistan. Mr Zardari and Gen Kyani have a choice to play along or they would not have any prior notification. In the future NATO armies would protect their own convoys along the route from Karachi to Khyber Pass. I know it sounds bizarre.Then read this peace: The German Defense Minister has publicly announced that planned army reforms would be undertaken to make it an intervention army which are likely to undertake special missions in Somalia and Pakistan. The political parties with the exception of the Left party have indicated their support for future missions outside Europe.

How do you get transparency in deals which Messrs Zardari and Kyani are making? The Yemeni Govt. did similar deals and is now facing a chaosin the country.

Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive

I find this article depicts what is wrong with more than just the US and Pakistan relationship. Our own body of govt in the US treats its citizenry the same way and we wonder why there is discord in the US. This tactic has become the norm, the expected. It is what was behind the Regan arms sales only he was too feeble to hide it properly. As time progresses with any form of hidden agenda, as new blood comes in and takes over, there is an erosion of the restrictions from those who think they are smarter but do not appreciate the subtleties that went before. I sure wish all the veils could be lifted; it’s not like they are fooling anyone anyway. The people know what to do and that’s the reason the governments have to pretend everything is a secret. They just don’t want any interference with their “saving face” but we are so “the king is in his altogether” with everyone standing by pointing out that he has no clothes on.

Posted by oredwrestricti | Report as abusive

Here is an honest piece by a Pakistani. And Pakistanis must chew this and try to become realistic and practical. He has said everything we have been saying all along.

http://www.dawn.com/2011/05/29/have-we-r eally-seen-the-enemy.html

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This is the most corrupt and unpopular government in Pakistan’s history. The husband of the assassinated martyr becomes president not long after her assassination, shedding no tears at her death. Most Pakistanis believe he was behind her assassination. The vast majority of Pakistanis want democracy and the rule of law but the United States keeps preventing this because it fears chaos. Well, what have they got now? It is time for free and fair elections and a new government independent from the military. America needs to get out of Pakistan and Afghanistan because our presence is just making matters worse. Having all those troops in Afghanistan doesn’t help at all. I would tell the Chinese that its up to them to bring stability to the region. I can’t believe American troops are protecting a Chinese copper mine in Afghanistan, a country in China’s back yard. And you have no problem with this?

Posted by cummings01 | Report as abusive


Well said!

Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive


I would surmise that the lack of transparency has more to do with Pakistan and the PA to be more specific. They are obssessed with controlling the news and spin. I would suggest to you and other journalists that the Pentagon, State, and their NATO counterparts would be far more open if they could be assured that the Pakistan Army wouldn’t go nuts at news that could be perceived as embarrassing or if the Pakistani public wasn’t more prone to believe conspiracy theorists before press releases.

This is reality. When public affairs officers and civilian PR staff put out press release they have to think of the sensitivies of Pakistanis.

Why else do you think everybody from Mullen to Clinton make such soothing statments in Pakistan? Do you really believe they don’t get the unvarnished truth at their daily/weekly intelligence briefings? They tell the Pakistanis what they need to hear so that the job can get done. This is how the world works.

Posted by kEiThZ | Report as abusive

KeithZ: “When public affairs officers and civilian PR staff put out press release they have to think of the sensitivies of Pakistanis. ”

Sensitivities can easily be balanced with anything that can hurt Indian sensitivities at the same time. Pakistanis would love to see India also hurt at the same time. A few comments on Kashmir, poverty, caste, Maoists etc always help console Pakistani hearts. If you see blogs in the Guardian, there is not a single article on Pakistan without taking a swipe at India. May be the rest of the Western media can emulate that too.

Posted by KPSingh01 | Report as abusive


A press secretary putting out a news release does not go out of their way to slag a third country. Their job is to get the facts out, with some consideration to how the news will be received among target audiences. That calls for tact and diplomacy, not an effort to slander a third country. It’s rather egregious that you would suggest that.

A press release about something in Pakistan, unless it explicitly involves India, will be centred on Pakistan and the country putting that press release (US, UK, etc.). The target audience for a press release about Osama’s death in Pakistan does not include Indians. It includes Americans (first and foremost), Pakistanis (close second), and then the rest of the world (which includes India in this example) comes after that. No where in there is there any need to slag India. Being sensitive to the concerns of Pakistanis, does not automatically (or in any way) entail slagging India, except in your mind…and ironically in the minds of your equally extremist counter-parts in Pakistan.

And please don’t confuse official releases and official sources (the topic of this discussion) with blogs. In every country, blogs and editorialists often put their own spin on events, often well above and beyond what official statements are made.

Posted by kEiThZ | Report as abusive

KeithZ: “Being sensitive to the concerns of Pakistanis, does not automatically (or in any way) entail slagging India, except in your mind…and ironically in the minds of your equally extremist counter-parts in Pakistan.”

What I said was meant to be sarcastic.

Posted by KPSingh01 | Report as abusive


In that case, I owe you an apology. Sorry.

/S would help next time. :-)

Posted by kEiThZ | Report as abusive