A couple of weeks ago, John Negroponte caused a major diplomatic stink between the United States and Pakistan. He did it by doing the most undiplomatic thing an American government official could do to Pakistan, short of opening a HoneyBaked Ham franchise in Islamabad or spray-painting "cricket is 4 fags" on the presidential palace.
John Negroponte told the truth.
In a report to the U.S. Senate, the director of national intelligence said that al-Qaeda is headquartered in Pakistan.
In the words of His Intelligenceness:
"They [al-Qaeda] are cultivating stronger operational connections and relationships that radiate outward from their leaders' secure hideout in Pakistan to affiliates throughout the Middle East, North Africa and Europe."
On the list of the world's most-shocking-ever statements, it ranks pretty low -- somewhere between "Lohan enters rehab" and "Norah Jones' new album is kinda mellow." The U.S. government thinks bin Laden went to Pakistan in 2001, apparently by bribing his way past the Afghans we bribed to catch him.
What irritated Pakistan's government about Negroponte's statement is that it's the first time that someone so high up in the U.S. government has made that statement directly, clearly and on the record. For the past five years, Pakistan's government has denied that al-Qaeda is based there. The Bush administration policy has been playing along with the lie. When discussing bin Laden's whereabouts, U.S. officials speaking on the record have been purposefully vague, implying that bin Laden & Co. could be hiding anywhere along the vast, mountainous region that straddles Afghanistan's border with Pakistan, including the Afghan side.
Negroponte's uncharacteristically direct statement may signal a shift in the United State's Pakistan policy. It doesn't mean the United States is going to withdraw its support for Pakistan's military dictator, General President (or is it President General?) Pervez Musharraf, but it might mean that the Bush administration is at last tired of Pakistan's two-faced, toxic approach to the War On TerrorTM.
Pakistan is ostensibly one of the United States' closest allies in the War On TerrorTM. After 9/11, the Bush administration convinced (by which I mean threatened) Musharraf to support the United States' effort to topple the Taliban in Afghanistan and kill or capture as many of al-Qaeda's leaders and operatives as possible.
Even though Pakistan birthed and raised the Taliban regime, Pakistan complied, allowing U.S. military planes to overfly Pakistan, and delivering to U.S. custody Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi bin al-Shibh. The men are alleged to be senior plotters of the 9/11 attacks.
Unfortunately, for everything Pakistan's government has done to help the U.S. war effort, it has done about 50 things to hurt it.
Some have been little things, such as when Pakistan's military airlifted pro-Taliban Pakistani fighters (including high-ranked Pakistani military) out of Afghanistan rather than let them surrender or die at the hands of the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance.
Some have been big, such as last year when Pakistan completely abandoned its half-assed effort to reign in the pro-Taliban militants who control Pakistan's border with Afghanistan.
Some have been mind-bogglingly huge, such as Pakistan's refusal to cooperate with U.S. and international investigators trying to figure out how much nuclear weapons know-how was given to Iran by Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan. Incidentally, Khan also helped North Korea build its nukes.
The Bush administration has allowed Pakistan to fight on both sides of the war because it recognizes that Musharraf is in a precarious position. He is an unpopular military dictator. If he pushes too hard against the powerful religious fanatics in Pakistan's government, they might push back and shove Musharraf out of office. The result might very well be a Pakistani government that fights fully and unreservedly for the al-Qaeda side of the war.
Negroponte's statement was likely intended as a warning. It probably means, "Hey, Musharraf, we're getting impatient and we need you to try harder."
It's not really working. Musharraf's response has been to act offended and sit by while Pakistani intelligence agents aid the resurgent Taliban's military operations in southern Afghanistan.
Musharraf is a cunning politician. That he no longer feels the urgent need to make nice with the Bush administration by helping us is a very bad sign. It means he's betting that the United States' influence in Afghanistan is on the wane. He's betting on the Taliban to take over again.