ONE MONTH after the killing of Osama bin Laden, the danger of a rupture in relations between the United States and Pakistan appears to have passed, for now. No evidence has been found that senior Pakistani officials knew of the al-Qaeda leader’s presence in the town of Abbottabad, and the army and intelligence chiefs have pledged to find anyone who may have helped him. At a grim but frank meeting with those officials and Pakistan’s president and prime minister in Islamabad last Friday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the Joint Chiefs chairman, Adm. Michael Mullen, discussed specific steps the two countries could take together on counterterrorism. Said Adm. Mullen: “Now is the time for action and close coordination, for more cooperation, not less.”
That, rather than an attempt to punish or bully Pakistan, strikes us as the only workable approach. True, the full story of Osama bin Laden’s stay in the country is not yet known, and official Pakistani cooperation with elements of the Afghan Taliban, as well as other terrorist organizations, appears to be ongoing. Some in Pakistan are pushing for a cutback in cooperation; several joint intelligence centers are reportedly being shut down. But Pakistan and the United States continue to share powerful interests, including a desire to defeat al-Qaeda — which has waged unrelenting war on the Pakistani elite — as well as Pakistan-based Taliban factions. As an attack on a naval base in the center of Karachi last week indicated, some of those extremists may have infiltrated the armed forces, making the need for counterterrorism cooperation all the more urgent.
U.S. aid to Pakistan, which has exceeded $20 billion since Sept. 11, 2001, is sometimes portrayed in Washington as a handout that Pakistan must earn. In fact Pakistan provides vital cooperation, including a supply route to Afghanistan and bases for the drone strikes that have greatly weakened al-Qaeda. But more importantly, U.S. dollars support pro-Western forces in a fateful internal battle over the future of this nuclear-armed Muslim country. What should concern Congress is not the amount of spending but the fact that so little of the aid for economic development and other civilian projects has actually been put to use. Pakistani generals, too, complain with some justification about the slowness in reimbusements for military operations against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and their failure to obtain needed equipment such as helicopters.
Ms. Clinton, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and other recent envoys have laid out specific steps for Pakistan to take in order to regain the confidence of Washington. Some have already been carried out, such as the return of a helicopter that crashed in the Abbottabad operation; Ms. Clinton suggested that “some very specific actions” should be forthcoming. Let’s hope they are. But the reality is that the United States cannot afford to write off or abandon Pakistan as long as there is the chance of exercising influence over its leadership. Given the stakes, even a bad relationship is better than none.