US, Pakistan must join in defeating al Qaeda

Earlier this week, a U.S. drone strike has reportedly killed al Qaeda’s second in command, Abu Yahya al-Libi. Together with the raid that took down Osama bin Laden, the United States draws closer to the “strategic defeat” of al Qaeda’s core — those directly responsible for the 9/11 attacks. 

The drone mission reinforces the importance of the relentless campaign against al Qaeda’s leadership along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. More than 300 such strikes have occurred since 2004, according to the New America Foundation. The campaign has been central to the Obama administration’s goal to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda.”

But there are mounting strategic costs, especially the increasingly tense and problematic relationship with Pakistan that has been in sharp decline over the past 18 months.

Coming into office, the Obama administration hoped to build a long-term “strategic partnership” with Pakistan. That is a distant memory.

In the aftermath of former special envoy Richard Holbrooke’s death in December 2010, both countries have struggled to manage a mounting list of mutual grievances — an intelligence operation gone bad that left three Pakistanis dead, the discovery of bin Laden in Abbottabad, the death of 24 Pakistani soldiers from friendly fire after poor military coordination, and now the inability of two erstwhile allies — Pakistan enjoys major non-NATO ally status — to agree on an acceptable price to reopen supply lines across Pakistan that support operations in Afghanistan.

And as if to add injury to insult, Pakistan recently jailed the physician who cooperated in the CIA’s surveillance of bin Laden prior to the Navy SEAL team raid. The Senate responded by cutting $33 million in assistance. The worrying downward spiral continues.

But by far the leading irritant in the relationship is the drone campaign, which is enormously unpopular within the Pakistani public and increasingly among its political elites. Pakistan’s military and intelligence services know more about the drone strikes than is publicly acknowledged. However, what began as a cooperative effort has since become a major bone of contention.

Earlier this week Islamabad called the al-Libi strike “unlawful” and a violation of its sovereignty. What was once a shared struggle against al Qaeda is now viewed as “America’s war” within and even against Pakistan. According to the latest Pew Global Attitudes Project poll, the U.S. approval rating within the Pakistani public is only at 11 percent, lower than perceptions of al Qaeda. Seven in 10 Pakistanis now view the United States as an enemy.

To the United States, the drone program, which the Obama administration only recently acknowledged publicly, is seen as an essential tool.

“We are fighting a war in the FATA,” Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said, referring to Pakistan’s federally administered tribal areas where remaining core al Qaeda leaders and key allies are located. “We are going to continue to defend ourselves.”

But while the United States has disrupted core al Qaeda, it cannot defeat core al Qaeda without Pakistan. Fortunately, the existing war of words with Pakistan and the tensions underneath are reversible. What should the administration do now?

First, remember history. Twenty years ago, after driving the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan, the United States left Pakistan to deal with the aftermath. This did not serve our long-term interests. When the war ends in 2014, Afghanistan will not be stable unless Pakistan is a more significant part of the process.

Second, after a year of talking past each other, it’s time to reengage Pakistan. As we have seen in the Arab Awakening, public opinion is now strategic. To paraphrase former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, if our effort to further reduce the al Qaeda leadership deck comes at the expense of Pakistani public opinion, we will create more future terrorists than we can hope to eliminate with the drone program as it currently functions. Playing whack-a-mole indefinitely in places like Pakistan is not sustainable without the support or at least understanding of the host population.

Finally, think long-term. Reducing violent political extremism requires working with a credible and capable civilian government, not against it. The Pakistani civilian government has demanded that drone strikes end. The only way to keep the drones flying without undercutting civilian governance is by making Pakistan a full partner. Future drone strikes should be joint operations, a fact both countries should publicly acknowledge.

The bottom line is, we cannot strategically defeat al Qaeda without Pakistan. To succeed, this must be Pakistan’s war every bit as much as it is America’s. It’s time to bring the war out into the open and force Pakistan to assume its share of the ownership.

Crowley is a former assistant secretary of State and now the Omar Bradley chairman at the Penn State Dickinson School of Law, Dickinson College and the Army War College. He is also a fellow at the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication at The George Washington University.