Pakistan-U.S. Relations: The Worst in Co-Dependency

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Christopher Hitchens just pulled all the sticky veneer off of a cancerous Pakistan-US relationship -- that has been going into the muck not just since we learned that Osama bin Laden was living somewhat pleasantly just down the street from Pakistan's West Point but much before, particularly when A.Q. Khan -- also living luxuriously and as a national hero in a well-buffed world called 'house arrest' -- was out pushing highly sensitive nuclear bomb-making technology to leaders of the world's most thuggish regimes.

Hitchens, not off his game at all, sets the rip at the beginning of his important Vanity Fair piece, "From Abbottabad to Worse":

Here is a society where rape is not a crime. It is a punishment. Women can be sentenced to be raped, by tribal and religious kangaroo courts, if even a rumor of their immodesty brings shame on their menfolk. In such an obscenely distorted context, the counterpart term to shame--which is the noble word "honor"--becomes most commonly associated with the word "killing." Moral courage consists of the willingness to butcher your own daughter.

If the most elemental of human instincts becomes warped in this bizarre manner, other morbid symptoms will disclose themselves as well. Thus, President Asif Ali Zardari cringes daily in front of the forces who openly murdered his wife, Benazir Bhutto, and who then contemptuously ordered the crime scene cleansed with fire hoses, as if to spit even on the pretense of an investigation. A man so lacking in pride--indeed lacking in manliness--will seek desperately to compensate in other ways. Swelling his puny chest even more, he promises to resist the mighty United States, and to defend Pakistan's holy "sovereignty." This puffery and posing might perhaps possess a rag of credibility if he and his fellow middlemen were not avidly ingesting $3 billion worth of American subsidies every year.

I once met and got a tour-de-force of the rough cultural, ethnic, and economic dynamics of the two "statelets" that Hitchens describes within Pakistan from the assassinated Punjab Governor Salman Taseer.  I'm convinced that he knew his rivals would attempt to use his support of intellectual and religious liberalism against him.

We support Pakistan today -- and remain engaged -- because it is the most dangerous nation on the face of the planet today. 

Withdrawing from Pakistan, despite what Hitchens accurately describes as a nearly criminally perverse relationship, would trigger wildly dangerous scenarios -- in part because a substantial portion of the Islamist radical cells that exist in key corners of Pakistan's national security establishment seem to relish a nuclear conflagration with India and are as ideologically committed to global destabilization schemes as Osama bin Laden was.

But America needs to invent leverage in this relationship rather than become more trapped in the muck of it.  Today, Pakistan is engaged in high stakes extortion -- demanding funds and support or its already bad behavior could get much worse.  That's how North Korea survives.

Barack Obama is beginning a long process of beginning to pull troops out of Afghanistan -- but as long as the US maintains a large military footprint there, we have less leverage than otherwise with Pakistan, which controls many vital choke-points that the US depends on in waging war in Afghanistan.  A key to diminishing Pakistan's leverage over the US and changing the equation in the relationship is to 'shrink' the US presence in Afghanistan and minimize dependence on Pakistan.

Some inside Pakistan did applaud the killing of Osama bin Laden; some even helped behind the scenes provide intelligence that eventually led to the storming of his compound.  But the people that mattered, who are in the news, who are running the national security, diplomatic and intelligence ministries and agencies did not come out and say "We would have killed bin Laden had we found him."

They are not saying that -- and are instead condemning the US for its covert Seal Team Six operation -- because they are fearful of their own angry, armed religious radicals.  To secure legitimacy in Pakistan right now, one must be allied with the Taliban in Afghanistan and overtly anti-American, at least in public. 

Unfortunately, the raw truth is that America has no real choice but to remain engaged with Pakistan -- but this can't be a binary arrangement in which Pakistan extorts and the US turns a blind eye to Pakistan's role empowering rogue regimes and animating some of the world's worst transnational terrorists. 

Slow disengagement, a decrease in financial support (as the US has just done) -- though not a full suspension -- some arm-twisting of its patrons like China and Saudi Arabia and some strategic clarity in the Obama administration on what the real prize here is -- which is a less psychotic Pakistan -- rather than plodding along in the debilitating Afghanistan quagmire could move things, eventually, to a less dangerous course.

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Steve Clemons is Washington editor at large for The Atlantic and editor of Atlantic Live. He writes frequently about politics and foreign affairs. More

Clemons is a senior fellow and the founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank in Washington, D.C., where he previously served as executive vice president. He writes and speaks frequently about the D.C. political scene, foreign policy, and national security issues, as well as domestic and global economic-policy challenges.

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