America can’t afford breach with Pakistan

For several years in the late 1990s, I worked for the government of Pakistan, mostly when the late Benazir Bhutto, an inspiring small-“d” democrat and charismatic populist leader, was prime minister of Pakistan. I made lots of Pakistani friends, in Pakistan and among the large Pakistani-American community here. 

One of those close friends was (and I hope still is) Riaz Khokar, whom I came to know when he served as ambassador to the U.S. from 1997-99. Ambassador Khokar was recently quoted in The Washington Post with angry comments about the way America has treated Pakistan in recent times. “The U.S. doesn’t realize it,” Khokar told the Post last week, “but the damage done is huge. This is a deep hurt that is not going to go away.” The Post reported that Khokar is advocating a “dramatic downgrading” of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship.

I was shocked and concerned: If Khokar, whom I knew as a great friend and supporter of the U.S. and its democratic and human-rights values, is angry with America, we need to take notice — and ask why. 

I see three reasons, associated with three words about the U.S. attitude toward Pakistan: sanctimony, forgetfulness and ingratitude. 

As to sanctimony, this is not the first time the U.S. government and American media have jumped all over a foreign government for mistakes that America itself has shown itself capable of. 

There is no question Pakistan’s military and intelligence agency, the ISI, screwed up big-time in not knowing that Osama bin Laden was living in the country, a stone’s throw from the nation’s military academy. 

How would America feel if Pakistani media and political leaders had publicly mocked the U.S. military and intelligence community for its failures in taking notice of obvious evidence that the 9/11 attacks were coming — as documented by the 9/11 Commission? Not happy.

Which leads to the second reason: our short memory. 

Anyone who has seen the movie “Charlie Wilson’s War” should know that Pakistan played a critical role in helping America organize fundamentalist Islamic jihadists, then called “freedom fighters,” to oust the Soviet Union from Afghanistan. One of those “freedom fighters” trained by American intelligence agency operatives was a man called Osama bin Laden. 

As soon as the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan, America celebrated — then exited Afghanistan and, essentially, left Pakistan twisting slowly in the wind, alone to contend with OBL and his “freedom fighters.” Do we forget that easily? 

And can we be so quickly ungrateful to the one nation in the entire world, much less the one Islamic nation, that has stood with America on the frontlines of the post-9/11 war on terror, losing more lives than America lost on 9/11 or in all other al Qaeda attacks put together? 

I am not criticizing President Obama’s decision not to give advance warning to the Pakistanis prior to the raid and killing of OBL. Given the record of premature leaks on other operations, there was at least a strong, rational basis for that decision. And Pakistan has a serious responsibility, for its own sake, to investigate what happened and why — and to make those findings public. 

But perhaps more public sensitivity might have been shown in the immediate aftermath of the OBL operation — especially more outspoken expressions of gratitude to the people of Pakistan and its top general and ally in the war against terror, Ashfaq Kayani, for their help not only in the war on terror but in Afghanistan as well. 

One thing is certain: It is not in America’s interest to alienate a democratic friend and ally like Pakistan, especially a nuclear-armed Pakistan that appears ready to turn away from the U.S. to China and perhaps, worst of all, to turn away from helping America in its effort to destroy al Qaeda and other terrorists in the region. 

Public humiliation is no way to treat a friend — much less a nation we need to remain our friend for our own national-security interests and protection.

Davis, the principal in the Washington law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, which also specializes in legal crisis management, served as President Clinton’s special counsel from 1996-98 and as a member of President George W. Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.  He is the author of the book Scandal: How ‘Gotcha’ Politics Is Destroying America.