The Abbottabad Commission’s report declares that in unilaterally launching a raid in Pakistani territory without informing Pakistani authorities at any stage, “the United States acted like a criminal thug” and perpetrated “an act of war”. While most of the report’s criticism is directed at the Pakistani government and military, it also argues that no legal justification existed for the US action – indeed, it spends eight pages outlining various legal arguments from Pakistanis and international legal experts.
The Commission states that the relationship between the two countries “has been based largely on US economic and military assistance to Pakistan on the one hand, and the contingent utility of Pakistan for the US on the other […] at its best, it has been a mutually beneficial relationship. More often, it has pretended to be a strategic relationship without being one, except for brief durations of overlapping interests in dealing with common challenges”.
It recommends a review of the relationship by the Pakistani government, based on a review of its strategic objectives and the ability to make the relationship “transparent and honest”.
Al Jazeera spoke to Richard Armitage, US deputy secretary of state from 2001 to 2005, under President George W Bush, about the Pakistan-US relationship.
Al Jazeera: The report describes Pakistan as an ‘unenthusiastic ally’ of the US-led War on Terror back in 2001. What was your impression?
Richard Armitage: I thought that Pakistan had a mixed view about participation in 2001 with the United States. [Then Pakistani] President [Pervez] Musharraf was enthusiastic, I think, primarily because he saw a way to get his country out of pariah status and the 10-year divorce it had with the United States. There were others, particularly the ISI [Inter-Service Intelligence], which for 10 years had fostered a different policy and had close associations with the Taliban, particularly after 1996, and they were much more reluctant.
I would class, generally, Pakistanis as suspicious of co-operation with the United States.
AJ: Did the US believe that Pakistan would help take down Osama bin Laden or bring him in?
RA: We certainly thought in the time that I was acting – 2001 to 2005 – that if Pakistan knew where Bin Laden was, they would assist us… And we put a great deal of credibility on President Musharraf and indeed had a very good relationship with him. I looked, however, carefully, from 2001 to 2005, at intelligence regarding the tribal areas and Afghanistan and Pakistan, and I could find no real assistance [for] the Taliban. I found some liaison, which one would understand – these were people with whom ISI had worked for 10 years or more. But I couldn’t find actual assistance. It was only in the middle part of 2005 that things really dramatically changed, for a lot of reasons, I think.
AJ: You talk about a good relationship with Musharraf. Tell us how the US-Pakistan relationship progressed from 2001 to 2005.
RA: As I say, President Musharraf, I believe, saw a way to get his country out of pariah status. He immediately acceded to the seven demands that [then] Secretary [of State Colin] Powell and I presented to him. During a visit of the ISI director Lieutenant General Mahmud Ahmed, [he] was very unenthusiastic about co-operation with the United States. But President Musharraf over-ruled him.
It developed in several different ways. One was intelligence-sharing. Two, in the provision of equipment, eventually including more F-16s. Three, in the United States paying for goods and services – we used Peshawar and other places as crossing points into Afghanistan. From their point of view, the Pakistan Army, as I say – and the ISI particularly from our point of view – was not co-operating with the Taliban, beyond the liaison I talked about. And indeed on occasion the Pakistani armed forces, which are Punjabi-dominated, actually lost a lot of men fighting extremists in Waziristan and places like that. So we thought they were pretty much on-side during that period regarding the Taliban. There were other groups, particularly LeT [Lashkar-e-Taiba], on which they were not on-side.
AJ: How were they not on-side on LeT?
RA: They were not on-side with us on LeT. We had tried to point out to General Musharraf and his colleagues that LeT was a very dangerous tiger to try to ride, because when Pakistan tried to get off, they might be devoured. LeT hated the United States and India, only slightly more than they hated President Musharraf – a point that we tried to bring home to him. And LeT, when they tired of toying with India and with us, they would probably go after President Musharraf. We were semi-successful. We did get the Pakistani government to remove the public donation boxes which were on the streets in Lahore and other places, but we were not able to totally get the Pakistanis to divorce themselves from LeT. And eventually we found Lashkar-e-Taiba participating against United States interests in Afghanistan.
AJ: The report states that by 2005 all co-operation between the CIA and the ISI on finding OBL had ceased. Why?
RA: I left in February 2005, and I’m not sure, however, if that statement is completely true. I noted that ISI directors came here every year at least once and visited with their CIA counterpart, etcetera, so it would seem to me that at least something still existed.
AJ: This is from a copy of the report: ‘The Commission was told that after 2005 all co-operation between the CIA and ISI regarding OBL ceased. The US did not respond to questions by the Commission on the subject. However, since, the US leaders publically communicated their concerns over the suspected presence of OBL in Pakistan’. Are you saying that there was still back-channel communication?
RA: No, I’m not saying that at all. I’m saying that publically, the ISI director was still travelling here to the United States at least once a year. And he would meet with his counterpart, who is the director of the CIA. He also met on occasion with the Secretary of Defence etc. So to make a blanket statement that all co-operation on Osama bin Laden ceased after 2005 seems to me a statement without foundation. But I was not involved.
AJ: Do you think the Commission might be saying this because they view the incident as a failure of national security?
RA: I have no idea why the commission says what they say or who they interviewed. I do know that the nation [of Pakistan] was quite embarrassed, on several fronts. One, that the United States could do this on their own and they wouldn’t know it, and two, that after successive leaders of Pakistan have told us they didn’t know where Osama bin Laden was, there had to be a certain embarrassment – and I think that was embarrassment that the public generally felt that, no matter the poor state of a lot of the institutions of Pakistan, the army was the only national institution which enjoyed trust. And here the army was floundering around during the time of our raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound. So there are many reasons for embarrassment…
The only national [Pakistani] institution which held [national] respect was the army, and this [raid] really chipped away at the legitimacy and the professionalism of the army. So I think there is every reason to feel embarrassed.
Having said that, as an American, I find that the raid was a success, and a message was sent to terrorists – that we will reach out and touch you.
AJ: The US obviously sees the raid as a huge success – they took out Osama bin Laden. The Pakistani government sees it as a “national tragedy”, “a night of shame”, took it from a completely different perspective – a total breakdown in their national security. Are those feelings accurate? Should they feel this way?
RA: I last was in Pakistan in 2009, and I met with the president, met with [Chief of Army Staff] General Ashfaq Kayani, met with everyone you’d expect I’d meet with. I’ve got to tell you that the feelings regarding the United States relationship have always been mixed, for good reason.
will get what they can out of the US relationship while they can, because history, since 1947, has shown that – in their eyes – we are not reliable.”]
From a Pakistani point of view, the United States and Pakistan didn’t just have one divorce for 10 years over the nuclear issue. Five separate times we have ceased providing equipment to Pakistan. So from their point of view, I think they’ll get what they can out of the US relationship while they can, because history, since 1947, has shown that – in their eyes – we are not reliable.
From our point of view, we expected that Pakistan would see things from the same pair of glasses we see things.
So, to some extent, both of us had unreasonable and unrealizable expectations.
AJ: The report talks of ‘a shortage of mutual appreciation, regard and trust in this contingent, transactional and often resentful relationship’ between the US and Pakistan. What’s your reaction to that?
RA: I think I would have written that at any time, not just as a result of the Commission after the Bin Laden raid. But it gets back from their point of view to the unreliability of the US as a partner. I keep stressing “from their point of view”. From our point of view, we’ve got our own interests and our own reasons.
AJ: In the report, the ISI chief says Pakistan had become too weak and dependent to defend itself against US policies. What’s your take on that?
RA: I don’t think that they had become weak. They did have few friends in the international community for 10 years, although we still had diplomatic relations with Pakistan, we had no assistance programmes. They had a good and competent air force, a good and competent navy, they’ve got a very strong land force [which] is fairly well equipped.
They are not in the business of confronting the United States. Their enemies were much more traditional ones. So I find the statement rather funny.
AJ: Had the Pakistani government had any information regarding the existence of an alleged support network for Osama bin Laden, the report indicates that Pakistan would have taken immediate action. Do you think that’s the case?
RA: They always told us that they did take action, but I’ve been out of it since 2005. And I think there has been… a question about the more recent ISI activities, and whether that would be the case. But I felt, during our time, that President Musharraf would have done something – had he known. And I think that General Ehsan ul-Haq, the ISI director during my time, would have done it as well.
AJ: After your time, do you think that Pakistan would have lived up to that statement?
RA: Well, after my time, there are several other things that happened. I personally believe that around mid-2005, both the Taliban and ISI had a change of view. The Taliban was coming to the conclusion that they weren’t as frightened of the United States… At the same time, [the] ISI was wondering: “Well, maybe we ought to go back to a more traditional policy of supporting some of the Taliban, because they may prevail.” So that’s the background.
AJ: There seemed to have been co-operation – there were some HVTs who were taken down in operations. Do you think the allegations or the concerns that Pakistan was leaking information to jihadi organisations – do you think that it was a legitimate concern that the US had, about Pakistan leaking information prior to raids?
RA: I think it is [a legitimate concern] in every country, in every situation or in every raid or drone strike. Is it the case? I can’t rule out that some people who might have been informed, did inform. Whether it a blanket policy? I have no idea.
AJ: Do you have any direct knowledge that they were?
AJ: The report indicates that the reason the US did not inform Pakistan about the raid prior, was that it was a power play – that the US administration did not want anyone to steal its thunder. Do you think there’s any truth to that?
RA: I think the United States went unilaterally as they did because they wanted to be sure that they could get the target they came after. I think that’s the only reason.
it was after Tora Bora that we found out how close we had been. How damnably close...
AJ: When you were in office, do you feel that you were ever very close to getting Osama bin Laden?
RA: After Tora Bora, no. And Tora Bora – it was after Tora Bora that we found out how close we had been. How damnably close. But after that, no, we were not.
AJ: The report clearly indicates that the raid to kill Bin Laden was ‘an act of war’ by the United States.
RA: I don’t care what the report indicates. I didn’t write it. It’s not a US report. They are welcome to write anything that they say. It’s not an act of war. We went out and took out a terrorist. If they want to call it an act of war, that’s fine.
AJ: Talk to me about the political impact that drone strikes have had on the Pakistan-US relationship?
RA: We’ve just today had reported a new drone strike in Pakistan, I think directed against the Haqqani network, which has caused a lot of angst on the part of the third-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. And he’s claiming that the United States has to stop these drone attacks. If Pakistan wants these drone attacks to stop, they can stop. But each time a government of Pakistan speaks up about them and does nothing about it, I think it incites public opinion in Pakistan, but it doesn’t do anything to resolve the issue.
AJ: Critics of the drone programme say that innocent people are being killed by these drone strikes.
RA: Well, this is war. And people do get killed who are innocent, and I am sorry about that. On the whole, I have my own questions about drone strikes. I think it’s a good weapon, it’s a good tool in our arsenal, but it has to be carefully deployed and one has to think carefully about the targeting.
AJ: When you say ‘this is war’, are you referring to the ‘War on Terror’, [or] are we at war with Pakistan?
RA: No, the War on Terror, of course. I am quite distressed, personally, about our relationship with Pakistan. I have worked on it all through the 1980s, when I was an official at the Department of Defence, I worked mightily on it for four years as deputy secretary of state. It’s one that I feel so distressed about the 190 million people in Pakistan who, under martial law or under democratically elected government, have been ill-treated and ill-served by their governments and they deserve a lot better.
AJ: Looking further down the line, at the long-term impact of these drone strikes, politically between Pakistan and the US. What’s the long-term effect if the US continues?
RA: It’s difficult for me to say, and the reason is this: it would be undeniable to say that the drone strikes… incite very negative public opinion in the Pakistani public. That’s an obvious point. Likewise, if you offered almost any Pakistani the opportunity to come to the United States, they’d do it in a heartbeat. So it’s a complex relationship. And it’s made even more complex by the divisions and the fissures in Pakistani society.
Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim