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#Comment: Why the United States officially ‘believes’ Pakistan’s bin Laden story

Why do allies sometimes pretend to believe one another’s lies?

There are good reasons and bad, as new evidence about the U.S. relationship with Pakistan demonstrates.

Throughout its “war on terrorism,” the United States has had to rely on Pakistan.  Though Washington may occasionally have believed its trust was abused, the Pentagon’s need for overflight rights or landing bases, crucial for U.S. troops in Afghanistan and throughout the Middle East, trumped diplomatic niceties.

The American people may wonder if this trumped self-respect as well. 

Seasoned investigative reporter Seymour Hersh recently wrote about Pakistan’s possibly problematic role in the U.S. capture of Osama bin Laden for the London Review of Books. 

Hersh, whose previous exposes have included the Abu Ghraib torture story during the war in Iraq, alleges that Islamabad kept bin Laden under lock and key in Abbottabad for six years — even as U.S. intelligence urgently tried to track him down.  Combing treacherous mountains and ravines for the world’s most wanted man, Washington may have risked and lost lives unnecessarily.

New York Times reporter Carlotta Gall agrees with some of Hersh’s assertions, writing last week that the US Government realized Pakistan was undermining efforts to track down bin Laden.

Would Washington ever tolerate such lies from a friend — or condone U.S. leaders covering up for them?  When President Barack Obama announced bin Laden’s death, he said, “cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound in which he was hiding.”  According to Hersh’s reporting, the reverse may have been true.

There are often excellent reasons for not outing a bad ally.  In dangerous times, for example, the consequences of a diplomatic rupture can be far worse than swallowing a lie.  Poland discovered this during World War Two.

In 1943, Radio Berlin broadcast the discovery of a mass grave of Polish officers in the Katyn Forest, a region previously occupied by the Soviet Union under the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop pact by which the Nazis and the Soviets had divided Poland between them.  The grave contained the remains of more than 20,000 people shot by the Soviet secret police to thwart resistance.

Not long after, Germany turned on Joseph Stalin’s empire, took Poland for itself and attacked the Russian homeland.  Nazi officials saw revelations of the massacre as an opportunity to drive a wedge between Moscow and its new Western allies, including the Polish government-in-exile.

Stalin resolutely denied the shocking charges, despite the findings of an international Red Cross forensics team that the Nazis invited to Katyn.  The British and U.S. governments refused to confront their ally, and tacitly accepted the subsequent conclusions of a Soviet special report that blamed the execution and mass burial (including approximately 8,000 Polish officers) on Nazi Germany.  Russia pretended innocence — and the allies pretended to believe it.

Not surprisingly, the prime minister of the Polish government based in London challenged the story.  Wladyslaw Sikorski angrily demanded a thorough, independent investigation.  Stalin retaliated by accusing Sikorski of collaborating with the enemy.  Russia then broke off diplomatic relations with Poland, nullifying the Sikorski-Mayski treaty that pledged wartime cooperation.  The gloves were off.

The consequences for Poland reverberated for 40 years.  The Soviet Red Army camped on the opposite side of the Vistula River, waiting while Germany burned Warsaw in 1944.  Moscow then refused to recognize the Polish government in 1945 and forced its substitute Communist Polish regime on the country until 1989.

For Poland, it turned out honesty was not the best strategy.  Russia finally acknowledged Stalin’s crime only in 1990, as part of Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of transparency, or glasnost.

Among those murdered in the Katyn Forest were thousands of Polish army officers

The Katyn massacre is an egregious example of a common phenomenon that is usually far more benign.  Nations often look the other way at bad behavior for the simple reason that a cost-benefit analysis would show no point in confrontation. Governments are aware that friends sometimes spy on them, for example. It’s obnoxious but not damaging enough to risk the rewards of continued good relations.

The American people, however, have placed a high value on transparency since the founders wrote the Constitution in 1787. The Constitution requires Congress to publish its proceedings. With this, the United States became the first nation in history to require government transparency by law.

Even if one assumed Pakistani duplicity and that the U.S. government was aware of it, telling the truth would not be anywhere near as catastrophic as the wartime rupture between Poland and Russia.

Washington is roughly 7,000 miles from Islamabad; Pakistan’s regular military cannot hurt the United States and would not wish to. But a public breach of trust may have erased any possibility of future cooperation between the two “friends.”

Pakistan was then providing logistical support for the U.S. intervention in neighboring Afghanistan. If Obama knew Pakistan was disloyal, he made the correct short-term choice not to reveal it.

Yet Americans should question their nation’s long-term policy. Had the United States not linked its fortunes with Pakistan in the first place, Obama would not have had to accept Islamabad’s possible lies — and tell fresh ones (or at least dissimulate) to the American people.

In 2004, Washington dubbed Islamabad a “major non-NATO ally” in the war on terror, which entitled Pakistan to foreign aid and new weapons. The United States also lifted economic sanctions previously imposed for illegal nuclear testing. But Pakistan’s usefulness as an ally has proved questionable.

Since 1947, the United States has added nation after nation to its roster of allies. From the progressive expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to the widening of the war on terror, the United States has entangled itself with a larger, increasingly diverse cast of countries.

Not all these relationships work equally well.

Choose your friends wisely, the old saying goes, because you’ll end up being like them. Now is the time to evaluate Washington’s longtime friends and reinvigorate relations with the most reliable, honest ones.

might not make it into the mix.

Elizabeth A. Cobbs is an American author and academic.  She is the Dwight E. Stanford chairwoman in U.S. foreign relations at San Diego State University and a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.



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