In the months following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States embraced an unlikely ally: Pakistan’s dictator and longtime Taliban backer, Pervez Musharraf. After Musharraf reversed his support for the Taliban in late 2001, Pakistan went from pariah to close ally in the Bush administration’s “war on terror.” It was a controversial and risky move that initially seemed to work, resulting in arrests of high-level Al Qaeda leaders. But the White House also bet that General Musharraf — who ousted Pakistan’s elected government in a 1999 coup — would crack down on Pakistan’s restive northwest areas, home to many senior Taliban and Al Qaeda members, possibly including Osama bin Laden. Unfortunately, despite $10 billion in American largesse since 2001, Musharraf proved an unreliable partner. Rather than using U.S. funds to conduct counterterrorism operations, Pakistan funneled the majority of the aid into heavy arms and aircraft — equipment more appropriate for conventional warfare with rival India than for a battle with terrorists. Pakistan’s northwestern frontier remains a pipeline for insurgent traffic into Afghanistan. According to the Department of Defense (DOD), the existence of militant sanctuaries in Pakistan represents “the greatest challenge to long-term security within Afghanistan.” Moreover, Bush’s long-standing support for Musharraf’s dictatorship did little to burnish the United States’ beacon-of-democracy credentials. In 2007 America’s image in Pakistan sank to a new low, with only 15 percent of Pakistanis holding a favorable view of the United States.
In August 2008, after elections seated a new opposition coalition headed by Benazir Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, Musharraf resigned from power under threat of impeachment. Since then, Zardari says Pakistan has taken a more aggressive stance against militants, including one offensive that killed 1,500 insurgents. American officials have expressed frustration with Islamabad’s actions, and the United States has reportedly launched at least 18 missile strikes on targets inside Pakistan since August 2008, stoking local resentment. In September 2008 this uneasy state of affairs gave way to a tacit agreement between American and Pakistani officials — one in which Washington refuses to openly acknowledge the attacks, while Islamabad continues to fend off public outcry by roundly condemning them. To date, at least three senior Al Qaeda officials have been killed in such strikes. The DOD press office did not respond to a request for comment, but Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has in the past cited the need for the U.S. effort in Pakistan to focus on economics and development, as well as the military fight.