Pakistan has arrested several of its citizens for espionage. Four of those arrested are believed to be civilians, one is reportedly a major in the Pakistani Army (there are conflicting reports on this, as Pakistan has denied any of those arrested are military officers). Pakistan, like any country, takes espionage seriously. That they would make arrests should not be surprising. But this is an unusual scenario. The men that Pakistan has arrested are accused of working with the United States, and the mission they were involved in was locating Osama bin Laden. Whatever excuse they may offer, between its allies in the West and the terrorists in their mist, Pakistan defers to the terrorists.
While it is understandable that Pakistan would be angry that some of its citizens had co-operated with a foreign power, the Pakistani government may soon have cause to regret these arrests. How can Pakistan argue that it is doing its best to co-operate with the United States while arresting some of the few Pakistanis who were able to help America find its most wanted man? The arrests of these five men, after the conspicuous failure to find and neutralize bin Laden, says much about Pakistan's commitment to the Western campaign against terrorism.
It will be years before the entire history of the intelligence operation that led to bin Laden's killing is known, but we know enough already to appreciate how extremely difficult it was. After obtaining the name of a trusted bin Laden associate, whom the al-Qaeda leader used as a personal courier, the CIA began a two-year hunt for this man. They eventually tracked him down to the Pakistani city of Abbottabad, and that's where the Pakistani agents came in.
One man owned a home that he rented out to the CIA as a safehouse (it is unclear if he knew he was dealing with American intelligence operatives in so doing). Using that house as a base, other Pakistanis working with the United States began to monitor the movements of the bin Laden courier, including the unusual compound that bin Laden was in fact residing in. How vital this part of the intelligence operation was to the overall effort to find bin Laden is not known, but was surely non-trivial. A continuing problem during the War on Terror has been the lack of any Western “boots on the ground” for intelligence gathering. The CIA's recruitment of these Pakistani operatives is noteworthy for that alone. Identifying bin Laden's hideout with enough certainty to kill him would likely have proven impossible without their help.
The killing of bin Laden was a victory for the United States, but a humiliation for Pakistan. It proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Pakistan is not a reliable partner in the War on Terror. To be sure, no doubt some Pakistanis are loyal to the West and consider al-Qaeda and the Taliban to be a hated enemy. But it is equally sure that just as many, if not more, of Pakistan's military, political and intelligence elite are actively working against America's interests in pursuit of an Islamist and/or nationalist agenda. Pakistan is a country riven into many disparate factions, some pro-Western, some pro-jihad, and everything else in between. It often tries to pretend otherwise, but discovering the world's most wanted man living a few minute's walk from a major Pakistani military academy hung out Pakistani's dirty laundry for all the world to see. According to Western intelligence officials, retired senior officers from Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (their senior spy agency) were aware of bin Laden's location, and even helped to construct his home.
This is why America has grown frustrated with Pakistan. Even if the specific Pakistani official that is dealing with Americans is sincere and truthful, it's impossible to know if they speak for the entire government, or just one fraction of it. America has rightly continued acting against terrorist targets inside Pakistan without bothering to consult with Pakistan's military in advance — a sure sign that the U.S. believes that any such intelligence provided to the Pakistanis will probably be leaked to the terrorists, giving them advanced warning and increasing the risk to U.S. forces. And in a shocking sign of just how badly broken the relationship between Washington and Islamabad has become, President Obama was ready to engage the military forces of Pakistan in battle if they had tried to intervene during the mission to kill bin Laden.
This reality is proving more and more difficult to ignore -- and equally difficult to resolve. Both Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen faced tough scrutiny on Capitol Hill Wednesday in the wake of the news of the informants' arrests. Republican and Democratic law-makers particularly questioned US financial support to Pakistan -- some $2 billion per year -- for dubious geopolitical gain. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham even asserted that the US was on "a collision course with Pakistan." However, while acknowledging the "more than warranted" frustrations with Pakistani conduct, the consensus of the senior military officials was that the US was better off suffering the rocky relationship. "If we walk away from it, it's my view it'll be a much more dangerous place a decade from now, and we'll be back," Adm. Mullen told a Senate Appropriation's Committee hearing on Wednesday.
Clearly, the Pakistanis have lost America's trust. And it is in Pakistan's strategic interest to at least pretend to be aligned with Washington, to ensure that the money and military supplies keep flowing from the American taxpayer into Pakistani coffers. But by arresting the men that had co-operated with the United States in the finding and killing of a madman, Pakistan does little to improve its internal security and does much to blatantly insult its major ally. If Pakistan had wished to get rid of these pro-American agents, a quiet diplomatic deal to move these men and their families to the United States (or some other Western country) could have been agreed to. With new identities and a bit of cash (a gift of the grateful United States), this latest diplomatic flare up could have been avoided. Everyone would have won.
Instead, Pakistan chose to undermine its delicate relationship with the US. Given Pakistan's history of refusing to co-operate with America, and even recent efforts to make life difficult for the CIA (including arresting one agent after a self-defense incident and leaking the name of another), their willingness to provoke America's wrath should be expected. But new reports indicate that this latest rebuke is in fact a reflection of the increasing combativeness between the two governments. In addition to the arrest of the informants, elite military leaders are considering ousting their army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, for being overly cooperative with the US -- and Kayani is working desperately to appease them. The political winds in Pakistan are turning to anti-Americanism and protectionism for Islamic terrorists. What this portends for the future is worrisome, to say the least.
Matt Gurney is a columnist and editor at Canada’s National Post. He can be reached on Twitter @mattgurney.