There seems no end in sight to the cascade of unwelcome news from Islamabad. It intensified after America's SEAL Team Six killed Osama bin Laden in a daring raid, and has continued apace. But the Pakistan problem has now become fodder in the American presidential campaign: Republicans are accusing the White House of leaking classified information about the bin Laden raid to portray President Obama as a fearless counter-terrorism warrior.
The question at hand: What led to the arrest of Shafiq Alfridi, a Pakistani doctor who allegedly tried to help the CIA obtain DNA for verification purposes from bin Laden's Abbottabad compound. American officials say that Alfridi, whom Pakistani authorities quietly arrested three weeks after the raid, apparently did not secure the DNA samples. Nonetheless, denied defense counsel and other basic legal rights, he was tried and convicted in Pakistan in May and sentenced to 33 years in prison.
Rep. Peter King, R.-N.Y., and other critics have accused the Obama administration of leaking the information that led to his arrest and trial. The White House has denied this (the president called the suggestion "offensive"). Attorney General Eric Holder has appointed two prosecutors to investigate this and other alleged leaks that Republicans — and even Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California — say have jeopardized national security. And neither Congress nor the White House believes Pakistani claims that its omnipresent military and ISI had no clue that the world's most hunted man was, as National Security Adviser John Brennan put it, "hiding in plain sight" in a heavily shrouded compound in Abbottabad — Pakistan's West Point. A Pakistani inquiry into who might have helped hide Bin Laden has produced no arrests. Dr. Alfridi is the only Pakistani in jail in connection with the raid — and our outraged Congress recently voted to withhold $33 million from Pakistan's $1 billion aid package — a million for each year of the doctor's sentence.
Meanwhile, U.S.-Pakistani ties continue to sour. A deal to re-establish free American use of supply lines to Afghanistan is now (apparently) off again. On Monday, the Pentagon announced it was withdrawing a technical team that had spent 45 days in Islamabad trying to iron out differences between the two sides. Washington is reportedly now prepared to pay Pakistan $500 a truck to facilitate transit — more than double the $240 fee per truck paid prior to the bin Laden raid. But while Pakistan has dropped its initial demand that Washington pay up to $5,000 per truck, it still insists that the administration apologize for inadvertently killing 35 Pakistani soldiers in a bombing raid last November, the event which triggered the supply route closing. The White House has refused.
Pakistan is also still furious over the CIA operative who shot dead two Pakistanis in Lahore last year, to say nothing of the surging U.S. drone attacks against militant enclaves in Pakistan. (These have risen from an average of one every 43 days in 2008 to one every four days.) Washington, meanwhile, accuses Pakistan of not doing enough to stop attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan by the militant Islamist Haqqani network and its continued harboring of the Taliban and others on Washington's terrorist list. This, despite Pakistan's distinction of being among the leading recipients of U.S. military and economic aid: Since 2001, the U.S. has given Pakistan well over $24 billion.
Another legal imbroglio also bodes ill: A Pakistani judicial commission found on Tuesday that Husain Haqqani, Pakistan's former ambassador to Washington, secretly tried enlisting White House support last year to rein in Pakistan's army. In an op-ed in yesterday's Washington Post, Haqqani called the inquiry "political." His only "crime," he said, was "standing up for U.S.-Pakistan relations for Pakistan's sake."
Ahmed Rashid, an influential regional analyst, says the ostensible crisis between Pakistan and the U.S. masks a domestic political crisis within Pakistan, one unlikely to be solved by even the most astute American diplomacy. "Pakistan's political and economic system has broken down," said Rashid. The Pakistani judiciary, army, ruling party and opposition are all "trying to topple one another during the worst economic crisis the country has ever faced." With electricity in rural areas being cut for up to 18 hours a day, high unemployment and roughly 60 percent of the country living below the absolute poverty line, "no part of the establishment wants to take responsibility for improving relations with the U.S. right now." The prospect of a failed Pakistani state armed with over an estimated 100 nuclear weapons puts the current crisis into grim perspective.
In other words, if you think U.S.-Pakistani relations can't possibly get any worse — think again.