In the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden, outrage against Pakistan has become commonplace in Washington, as exasperation grows, pressure builds, and the threats multiply. Members of Congress from both parties have urged major cuts in the third largest U.S. aid program, which has gone mainly to the Pakistani military. (Republican Congressman Ted Poe caught the mood of the moment: “Pakistan has a lot of explaining to do... Unless the State Department can certify to Congress that Pakistan was not harboring America's number one enemy, Pakistan should not receive one more cent of American aid.") Meanwhile, members of the White House have reportedly called for “strong reprisals” if the Pakistanis aren’t more cooperative on information-sharing in the war on terror, and Senator John Kerry traveled to Islamabad to demand from that country’s leaders “a real demonstration of commitment” in fighting terrorism at a “make it or break it moment.”
About that leadership, high American officials have lately minced few words. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was typical. At a press conference, he answered a question about whether the Pakistani senior leadership shouldn’t “pay a price” for someone there knowing about bin Laden’s Abbottabad hideout in the following way: “If I were in Pakistani shoes, I would say I've already paid a price. I've been humiliated. I've been shown that the Americans can come in here and do this with impunity.” Impunity? It’s not a word secretaries of defense usually wield when it comes to allies and was clearly meant to register in Islamabad -- and to humiliate.
Here’s what’s curious though: as Dilip Hiro, South Asian expert and author most recently of After Empire: The Birth of A Multipolar World, points out, the Pakistanis control American supply lines to Afghanistan and so the fate of the war there, a simple fact seldom highlighted in the U.S. And here is a simple reality to go with that: The U.S., which has contributed $20 billion in aid to Pakistan since 2001, certainly could cut back or cut off future infusions of financial support. It could also launch those “strong reprisals,” but only if it first made a basic decision -- to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan and end its war there. Otherwise it remains in an uncomfortable marriage with Pakistan till, as they say, death do us part, a coupling in which, as Hiro indicates in his latest piece “Playing the China Card,” Pakistan for all its internal weaknesses has a potentially stronger position than most Americans might imagine.