WASHINGTON — In March, the Obama administration certified to Congress that Pakistan had shown a "sustained commitment" to ending its support for Islamic militants. Two days later, the top U.S. military officer accused Pakistan's premier spy agency of supporting Afghanistan's deadliest insurgent group.
At the same time, of course, U.S. officials were in the final stages of planning the raid that killed Osama bin Laden on Monday — and didn't know if Pakistani officials were helping to hide the al Qaida leader in a military town near their capital.
Despite the contradictions, the certification was granted, removing a key hurdle for Congress to approve $1.5 billion in new U.S. military aid to Islamabad and underscoring yet again the lengths to which the Obama administration has bent over backward to keep its policy toward Pakistan on track.
Pakistan's cooperation is considered crucial to fighting al Qaida and bringing U.S. troops home from Afghanistan, and U.S. aid has financed Pakistan's expensive and bloody crackdown on its own insurgents. But experts and U.S. officials say that it still harbors Pakistani and Afghan militants fighting in Afghanistan, some of whom are given free passage to attack U.S.-led troops there. Pakistan denies providing such support.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who signed the March 18 certification, acknowledged Thursday that the U.S.-Pakistan alliance was on shaky ground but signaled no change in the administration's policy toward the country.
"It is not always an easy relationship. You know that," Clinton said in Rome. "But on the other hand, it is a productive one for both our countries and we are going to continue to cooperate between our governments, our militaries, our law-enforcement agencies, but most importantly, between the American and Pakistani people."
The U.S., however, has a long history of failing to strictly hold Pakistan — and other countries — to conditions that Congress sets for aid. As a result, Pakistani officials have come to consider their cooperation so indispensible that Washington will do all that it can to stretch the requirements and overlook flagrant transgressions, some experts said.
"It essentially will always be a political decision, and we won't let such requirements get in the way," said former State Department intelligence analyst Marvin Weinbaum, an expert at the Middle East Institute.
The State Department declined to provide an on-the-record response or disclose the criteria used to measure Pakistan's compliance with aid conditions.
"The secretary . . . believed that Pakistan met the legal threshold required to make the certification," a State Department official wrote in an email on condition of anonymity because of the matter's sensitivity. "Certification decisions take into account a wide range of information and measure cooperation on a number of areas."
In order for Pakistan to receive the $1.5 billion in military aid that the Obama administration is seeking for 2012, Congress required Clinton to certify Pakistan's progress in fighting terrorism. Islamabad also is to receive $1.5 billion in civilian assistance, which isn't contingent on this certification.
The 2009 aid bill is a keystone of the administration's bid to convince Islamabad that the U.S. seeks a long-term partnership, and won't turn its back on the region to the detriment of Pakistan's security like it did after Soviet troops left Afghanistan in 1989.
Clinton certified that Pakistan last year showed a "sustained commitment to and is making significant efforts toward combating terrorist groups." She assured lawmakers that Pakistan "has made progress on . . . ceasing support, including by any elements within the Pakistan military or its intelligence agency, to extremist and terrorist groups, particularly to any group that has conduct attacks" against U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan.
She also wrote that Pakistan was "preventing al Qaida, the Taliban and associated terrorist groups" from operating inside its borders, closing "terrorist camps" in the tribal region bordering Afghanistan and dismantling bases elsewhere, including in Quetta, the sanctuary of the Afghan Taliban leadership.
Pakistani security forces have fought bloody offensives against the Taliban Movement of Pakistan, an amalgam of al Qaida-allied groups that has killed tens of thousands of Pakistani troops, police and civilians in a campaign to supplant the secular government with Islamic rule. The Obama administration also credits Pakistan with helping to kill or arrest numerous key al Qaida operatives.
But the Pakistani army and the feared military-run intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, or ISI, have spurned U.S. requests to pursue the Afghan Taliban and allied groups that use Pakistani sanctuaries as springboards for attacks on U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, U.S. officials said.
A primary U.S. concern is the Haqqani network, an al Qaida-linked group based in the North Waziristan tribal area that has staged some of eastern Afghanistan's most spectacular attacks. They include an October 2009 suicide bombing against the Indian embassy in Kabul that killed 58 people.
On March 20, two days after Clinton's certification, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, used interviews with Pakistani news media during a visit to Islamabad to accuse the ISI of backing the Haqqani network.
"The ISI has a long-standing relationship with the Haqqani network. That doesn't mean everybody in the ISI. But it's there," Mullen told Geo News, Pakistan's leading television news channel.
"Haqqani is supporting, funding, training fighters that are killing Americans and killing coalition partners. And I have a sacred obligation to do all I can to make sure that doesn't happen," Mullen told Dawn, Pakistan's biggest English-language daily.
The U.S. also wants Pakistan to end the Afghan Taliban leadership's sanctuary in Quetta, and to stop tolerating extremists led by Gul Bahadur and Mullah Nazir, Pakistani commanders whose forces are allowed to operate in Afghanistan as long as they refrain from attacks inside Pakistan.
"There is no evidence that the (Pakistani) military leadership . . . has made any change in its calculation in sponsoring extremists as instruments of foreign policy," said a former U.S. diplomat who remains involved in South Asia affairs and requested anonymity to avoid compromising the work. "How our secretary of state can say what she says (in the certification), knowing what she knows, I just can't imagine."
Many U.S. officials and experts think that the Pakistani military and ISI support Afghan extremists as part of a plan to limit India's influence in Kabul by pushing for the installation of a pro-Pakistan government.
Clinton's certification echoes U.S. policy of the 1980s, when the U.S. needed Pakistan to shuttle arms to rebels fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Washington repeatedly approved aid to Islamabad while overlooking intelligence that it was secretly developing nuclear weapons.
The practice lasted until 1990, when overwhelming evidence — the U.S. knew enough to build a full-scale mockup of a Pakistani warhead — forced a decade-long U.S. aid cutoff under congressionally mandated sanctions.
Former U.S. diplomats recounted how State Department lawyers sought loopholes and stretched language to allow former presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush to certify that Pakistan wasn't building a nuclear bomb — when they knew it was.
"The lawyers would go into the hallway and say things like, 'Let's say they have a Colt .45, but there are different parts in different rooms. Do they really have a Colt .45?'" said one former diplomat, who requested anonymity to speak freely. "Since different parts of their nuclear program were in different places, we could say they didn't have a bomb."
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