By David Ignatius
ISLAMABAD — Is Pakistan America’s ally in the battle against terrorist groups, or a potential antagonist? That delicate question was in the air Thursday during a meeting with a senior official of the country’s fearsome spy service, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate.
This has been a week when frustration on both sides boiled over. A new book by Bob Woodward quoted President Obama warning of a “cancer” of terrorism in Pakistan. U.S. drone attacks over the tribal areas were reported to be at a record level. And U.S. helicopters, which have been firing across the border in “hot pursuit” of insurgents, hit three Pakistani soldiers by mistake early Thursday. The Pakistanis responded by halting NATO supply trucks at the Khyber Pass.
“Pakistan is not a walkover country,” warned the senior ISI official. If the U.S. continued its cross-border attacks, he said, “I will stand in the way of the convoys myself.”
Thinking about Pakistan, it’s usually wise to look beyond public pronouncements. The friendship is always more guarded than it might appear in the good times, and rarely as bitter as the rhetorical volleys would suggest. There’s a core of mutual self-interest that normally guides the relationship.
But, that said, the alliance is badly strained right now. The tension comes at a time when the Pakistani government faces a barrage of internal problems — a devastating flood, a collapsing economy, a terrorist insurgency, and a political leadership preoccupied with factional squabbling and score-settling.
This is a moment, in short, when cool heads would be useful in Washington and Islamabad. Too many more tugs on the Pakistani fabric and it’s going to rip — with consequences that are hard to predict.
The senior ISI official met me at the agency’s headquarters, in a conference room down a corridor of black marble pillars and decorative fountains — an oddly elegant setting for an agency whose very name makes most Pakistanis nervous. The official began by noting one sign of continuing U.S.-Pakistani amity, which were the meetings this week between the agency’s chief, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, and CIA Director Leon Panetta.
The official said the two spy chiefs had “discussed everything possible” and that the ISI leader had “reassured” Panetta of Pakistan’s “complete support for U.S. efforts in Afghanistan,” and for Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s efforts at reconciliation.
The ISI recognizes America’s mounting frustration over the Taliban’s use of sanctuaries in Pakistan, and the implicit American threat: You deal with the safe havens, or we will. “We understand that this has to be handled,” the ISI official said. But he cautioned that because Pakistani forces are stretched so thin, a new offensive in North Waziristan won’t happen soon — which effectively means the sanctuaries will remain open.
The ISI has privately backed the drone attacks, even though the Pakistani government publicly protests them. But the official cautioned that the recent barrage may be overkill. He said that by Pakistan’s count, of the 181 drone attacks since 2004, 75 have come in the past nine months. “The quality of the targets is not as good,” he said. “The perception is that you are trigger-happy.”
Asked about American attempts to target the Haqqani network, a ruthless Taliban faction that in the past has had links with the ISI, the official seemed to give a green light: “I would be happy if they go today. It will end so much trouble for Pakistan.” But he said Pakistan would oppose any attempt to widen the so-called “box” within which Predator drones can strike targets.
The ISI official was skeptical that the U.S. was making much military progress in Afghanistan. (“Is there a U.S. strategy?” he asked.) And he questioned the American premise that by killing enough insurgents, it could “bargain from strength” and force the Taliban into a settlement. He complained that the U.S. wasn’t sharing its thoughts about reconciliation with the Taliban, even though Pakistan would be crucial in facilitating any deal. Privately, the ISI has argued that if America is serious about reconciliation, it should start with the Haqqanis, the hardest challenge.
This week a bad dream seemed to be coming true, with an American helicopter killing Pakistani soldiers. “No Pakistani government or military leadership can survive” if it’s seen as a pushover for America, cautioned the ISI official. The anger on both sides is real. And yet top-level contacts continued, even as Pakistan was closing its border to U.S. transit.
That’s the Pakistani-American paradox: No matter how furious they get, the two countries need each other, and never more than now.
David Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.