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U.S. And Pakistan: Ties That Bind, But Also Chafe

President Obama meets with Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari in the Oval Office earlier this year. A former ambassador says Osama bin Laden's death could be the time to reset relations between the U.S. and Pakistan.
J. Scott Applewhite
President Obama meets with Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari in the Oval Office earlier this year. A former ambassador says Osama bin Laden's death could be the time to reset relations between the U.S. and Pakistan.

Many people thought Osama bin Laden was in Afghanistan. Instead, he was found and killed in a country that has always been a complicated U.S. ally: Pakistan.

Wendy Chamberlin was the U.S. ambassador to that country during an especially trying time — during and after Sept. 11, 2001. She tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered, that the al-Qaida leader's presence, for years, less than a mile from Pakistan's top military academy has to be more than a coincidence.

"It's hard to believe that someone didn't know," says Chamberlin, who's now president of the Middle East Institute. And that only creates more friction between the two nations — which she describes as "one of the most complex relationships that we have in the whole constellations of diplomatic relations," she says.

Playing Both Sides

As Chamberlin sees it, a big challenge in working with the Pakistanis is their multiple priorities.

"We have points where we wreak enormous cooperation from them, and at the same time they operate against our interests," she says.

Take the Pakistani military. It's vital to U.S. counterterrorism efforts because it gathers intelligence and arrests many al-Qaida members. At the same time, the military supports groups the U.S. considers terrorists, such as the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group responsible for the Mumbai attacks in 2008.

That's especially tough to swallow for members of Congress, who send about $3 billion a year in aid to Pakistan despite the country's shifting loyalties. Robert Casey (D-PA), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee that oversees Pakistan, knows walking away is simply not an option.

"If you have to be concerned about national security, as I do, or if you have to be concerned about the return taxpayers get on their money, as I do," says Casey, "you have to figure out a way to make this work."

Casey knows there are other factors that make Pakistan indispensable to the U.S. It has nuclear weapons, of course, and military success in the country helps in the counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan. Keeping Pakistan stable, he says, means keeping U.S. relations with other key countries stable.

'The Worst Period In Our Relationship'

Chamberlin was ambassador to Pakistan during what she calls "a special time." She arrived there just a month before the Sept. 11 attacks — when relations with Pakistan weren't exactly rosy.

"It was perhaps the worst period in our relationship," she notes.

At the time, Pakistan was receiving no U.S. developmental aid and was under sanctions. On Sept. 13, 2001, Chamberlin was given instructions to ask Pakistan's military leader, Pervez Musharraf, about his allegiances.

"What I said was, 'Are you with us or are you against us? Now, look I know you're with us, it's in your interests,' " she recalls. " 'What can we do together?' "

What resulted from that conversation was a pact. Musharraf agreed to support the U.S. "unstintingly" in the fight against al-Qaida and the search for bin Laden. The U.S. would lift sanctions, provide aid and promise no boots on the ground in Pakistan.

"That was a point in history where we had renegotiated our relationship," says Chamberlin.

Another Chance To Renegotiate

Almost a decade later, another historic moment is testing the strength of that relationship.

"That distrust has begun to build up again," she says. "Clearly we don't feel that has been an unstinting commitment to fight al-Qaida."

When trust collapses, rebuilding it is an arduous task. Chamberlin believes this could be another time to reassess priorities, to normalize relations and have a clearer understanding about "where we will tolerate misbehavior and where we won't, on both sides."

Casey also sees this as a time to ask tough questions, and hopes it will forge better relations in the future.

"Maybe the result of all of this will be they'll work closely with us and share intelligence better," the senator says. "But I think we can't just hope for that. We have to push and push and push."

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