Two Takes on the U.S.-Pakistan Marriage

On the rocks, or on the mend? Or could it be both?

What’s the current status of the United States’s tortured, convoluted, unhappy marriage with Pakistan? If you’re someone who still prefers to get your news in print, your answer to that question may depend on which coast you live on.

From the eastern seaboard, the lead story of the July 22 New York Times, which we’ve previously linked to, opened this way (emphasis mine):

Pakistan is objecting to expanded American combat operations in neighboring Afghanistan, creating new fissures in the alliance with Washington at a critical juncture when thousands of new American forces are arriving in the region.

On the other side of the country, five days later, came this story from the Los Angeles Times:

Intelligence sharing and military cooperation have begun to increase between Pakistan and the United States, according to American officials, who say their efforts to cultivate key leaders in Islamabad may be beginning to pay dividends.

Pakistan, they say, has stepped up its cooperation along its border with Afghanistan for the first time in recent years, informing Afghanistan and the U.S. about operations it is conducting and seeking a coordinated response to trap Islamist militants.

Pakistani officials have also been providing intelligence help in the search for a U.S. soldier captured by Taliban militants in eastern Afghanistan. The United States, meanwhile, has been sharing information with Pakistani officials on the results of American military drone flights aimed at collecting intelligence over insurgent-heavy areas of their country.

“The cooperation is the best I have ever seen it, and I have seen a lot,” said a high-ranking U.S. government official.

Of course, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, readers on either coast, or anywhere in between, can read both these stories. But that creates a new problem: Even if the two stories are not quite mutually exclusive—and they’re not—they lead to rather different conclusions about the nature of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship.

So how to make sense of the apparent disparity between the two?

The first clue about the origin of the discrepancy is in the articles’ respective datelines and sourcing. The NYT’s piece, written by Eric Schmitt and Jane Perlez, was reported from Islamabad, where the reporters spoke with representatives from Pakistan’s top spy agency. The LAT’s piece, written by Julian Barnes, was reported from Afghanistan, and apparently based largely on conversations with American officials there.

That distinction leads to another: Much of the most interesting information in these stories isn’t so much about the status of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship as it is about how the various sources perceive, and try to represent, that relationship. And as a side-by-side comparison of the stories makes clear, those sources have different perspectives and motivations.

Both stories acknowledge—though the NYT’s does so more forcefully—that Pakistan considers its gravest security threat to be India, not the Taliban. The NYT’s story also explores Pakistan’s fear, so far unfounded, that military operations along the Afghanistan border will drive more militants into Pakistan. And it explains that some in Pakistan view at least some Taliban forces as long-term allies—a fact that may temper their enthusiasm for fighting the militants.

In a phone interview Tuesday, Schmitt described Pakistan’s concerns in greater detail. “There’s this much larger issue of distrust” stemming from American abandonment of the region after Soviet forces were defeated in Afghanistan, he said. “There’s all this tension over whether the U.S. is really an ally, are we really going to be there when they need us?” With anti-American sentiment still running high, it makes sense for Pakistani officials to be vocal and public in their criticisms of the U.S.

American officials, on the other hand, face a very different calculus—one that may lead them to downplay conflict, rather than highlight it. While both nations currently need each other, the U.S. has few tools with which to discipline Pakistan, and U.S. officials have “seen there’s such a backlash when they” go public with criticisms, Schmitt said. As a result, there are incentives for the U.S. to emphasize the positive. (Indeed, this is not the first time American officials have publicly put a happy face on the relationship.)

Schmitt agreed that there is in fact more cooperation in some areas. Because the relationship is “complicated and sometimes contradictory,” lots of things may be happening at once. But, he said, “I just have to believe [American officials] are also trying to look at this as a glass half full, rather than the glass half empty… They’ll just choose to single out the positive aspects.”

So given the undeniable murkiness of the situation, what sort of context should reporters provide to their reporting? Via e-mail from Camp Blackhorse in Afghanistan, the LAT’s Barnes wrote the following about his article:

In my mind, this story had some news that was valuable on a daily basis—that the Pakistanis were providing help to the Americans in the search for the captured soldier. As a result I turned around a quick story.

The perfect news story would indeed have more outside perspectives. But I do not think, necessarily, that all stories must cover all perspectives, as long as over time a newspaper reports from a variety of viewpoints. That is not a brief for biased or unbalanced stories, and to be sure our Islamabad correspondent provided some thoughts from Pakistan in an attempt to give readers some broader context. But my story was only attempting to report on the current thinking of the national security establishment.

That’s a perfectly reasonable response, as far as it goes. In this arena, relaying the perspective of one side—as both stories do—can provide real value. And as Barnes explained, he “turned around a quick story,” and anyone who has worked at a daily newspaper understands the many and varied shortcomings of the genre. But the trouble with the LAT’s story, in particular, is not that it doesn’t devote more space to Pakistan’s perspective, but that it does not go deep enough in explaining why American officials might have been especially eager to say kind things about the relationship with Pakistan. As a result, it sometimes teeters on the edge between relaying the thinking of American officials and actually affirming that thinking. Addressing these concerns wouldn’t require mind-reading or editorializing—it would just entail reminding readers what the underlying structural incentives are.

And yet. A sophisticated reader—one who has learned to look at datelines and sourcing, and who knows that just because “officials say” doesn’t make it so—might not need this guidance. The idea that someone might say nice things about another person in the hope of getting what they want from them, after all, is a pretty elementary insight. Still, there’s no reason for readers to have to read between the lines this way. Spelling out the context a bit more always makes a story stronger—and in this case, would have made them less discordant.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.