Osama bin Laden's death in Pakistan last week at the hands of Navy SEALs was a moral and symbolic victory for the U.S., but it complicated the already tense relationship between the Obama administration and Islamabad. The feeling in Washington is that the Pakistanis either were complicit in hiding bin Laden or are simply incompetent. Pakistanis, meanwhile, are furious that the Americans violated their country's sovereignty by mounting a covert mission deep inside their territory without the government's knowledge or consent. Voices on both sides are questioning whether the alliance can survive.
Yet the U.S. can no more afford to scrap its relationship with Pakistan than Pakistanis can afford to break with Washington. Awkward as the truth may be, Pakistan and the U.S. need each other to prosecute the war on terror. And for that reason, they are going to have to learn to get along despite the hard feelings over bin Laden's killing because the price of failing to continue cooperating with each other could be disastrous for both countries.
Why does the U.S. need Pakistan? For one, most of the supplies for the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan have to pass through Pakistani territory. If the U.S. lost access to those routes it could jeopardize the fight against the Afghan Taliban at a time when American officials are trying to stabilize the country enough to turn over its security responsibilities to Afghan government forces in 2014. Preventing a resurgence of the Taliban along Afghanistan's porous border with Pakistan is a key to that strategy, and the U.S. needs to continue pressing the Pakistani military to take stronger action against the insurgent bases on their side of the border.
Pakistan needs the U.S. because without our help, it would be increasingly vulnerable to its own Islamic insurgency in the form of the Pakistani Taliban. Pakistan has built up a formidable nuclear arsenal to counter its arch-rival India, but U.S. officials worry those weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists if the Pakistani Taliban managed to gain a foothold in the country. Before a government offensive pushed back the insurgents in 2009, Pakistani Taliban had advanced to within 60 miles of one of the country's largest nuclear sites.
After the revelation that bin Laden had been hiding in plain sight for the last five years, literally under the noses of the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment, it's understandable some U.S. lawmakers are calling for an end to American aid to that country, which amounted to some $13 billion over the last decade, most of which went to the Pakistani military. There's no question a segment of Pakistan's population — possibly including elements in the army and intelligence services — resents America's presence in the region and secretly sympathizes with the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Some Pakistanis describe the bin Laden killing as an American plot to humiliate Pakistan's military, which didn't show up until the intruders were gone.
President Obama was right to insist the Pakistanis investigate how bin Laden could have hidden out for so long there without anyone noticing. There may well be rogue military or intelligence officers who provided the support network bin Laden would have needed to survive. The government must deal with them for its own safety. At the same time, it should allow American investigators to question the bin Laden wives and children who were left in the family compound after SEALs departed, and who are now in Pakistani custody. That will be the first major test of their bona fides as trustworthy allies.
Over the long run, both the U.S. and Pakistan have little choice but to work together against a determined enemy that threatens them both. Pakistan may never completely give up the idea that its bitter rivalry with India demands it support some terrorist organizations in Afghanistan and Kashmir. We believe that's a short-sighted and ultimately self-destructive policy because sooner or later those groups are bound to turn on their would-be patrons. What's important for America, however, is how well the U.S. and Pakistan can work together to counter the most pressing threats they share in common. We may never be the best of friends with Pakistan, but continued constructive engagement with its government and military may be enough to assure a future for our two countries' troubled alliance in the war on terror.