By Corey Velgersdyk Senior Editor July 12, 2011

The world of intelligence was referred to as “a wilderness of mirrors” by James Jesus Angleton, the longtime counterintelligence chief of the CIA. He was referring to the intricate double-dealings of the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, but it serves equally well as a description of the relationship between the United States and Pakistan.

Even before the events of the past year, this relationship had more than its share of ups and downs, particularly downs, but with the American raid in Abbottabad raid that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden and the Raymond Davis incident this crucial relationship is more strained, possibly to the point of breaking.

Why is Pakistan so important to the United States? There are several possible answers to this question. Pakistan is a nuclear power, and that status alone justifies extra scrutiny. Pakistan also has one of the world’s largest populations, and much of it lives in squalor. Ultimately, much of Pakistan’s importance comes from its geo-strategic importance. Its long border with Afghanistan and the influence it exerts in that country make Pakistan an ever-present consideration for the U.S. military there. Pakistan also allows U.S. forces to use airports and bases for operations in Afghanistan.

Complicating the relationship is the fact that Pakistan appears to be playing host to the very combatants the United States is fighting in Afghanistan. The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) is home to Taliban, al Qaeda, and other radical insurgents that operate both in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Critics of Pakistan claim that top leadership within the military and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s primary intelligence agency, provide these insurgents with training, intelligence, and material support. In fact, American concerns that someone high up in the ISI was leaking intelligence to al Qaeda led to the United States keeping Pakistan in the dark about the Abbottabad raid.

Given all of this, perhaps the better question is whether Pakistan worth all of the trouble? Corruption diverts large amounts of U.S. aid to Pakistan, and counter-insurgency (COIN) operations are compromised by leaks within the military or ISI. It seems that every effort the United States makes is hampered out of the gate.

Part of the difficulty is due to the United States’ inconsistent relations with Pakistan. During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States became natural allies with the United States providing billions of dollars of aid to Pakistan, which funneled it to the mujahideen, guerilla fighters that resisted the Soviet occupation. But following Pakistan’s successful nuclear testing, the United States responded by suspending virtually all assistance to the country. After 9/11, when Pakistani cooperation became vital in the War on Terror, the United States lifted sanctions and renewed its aid programs. The result of all this back-and-forth is that Pakistan perceives the United States as an unreliable and fickle ally.

In foreign affairs, necessity makes strange bedfellows, and necessity provides an explanation for why the United States and Pakistan continue to deal with each other. Even with the hurdles of corruption and intelligence leaks, Pakistan, with its indispensible intelligence assets, remains a crucial partner in the COIN operations in Afghanistan. Simply put, the United States cannot hope to succeed in Afghanistan without the assistance of Pakistan.

Necessity, however, is not trust. The United States has seemingly taken Pakistan’s importance to mean that it can be trusted with a virtual blank check of military aid. The importance of Pakistan is undeniable, but it should not preclude the United States from acting warily regarding Pakistan’s stability and motives. In some cases, such as the way U.S. planners kept Pakistan in the dark about the Abbottabad raid, the United States is already doing just that.

The wilderness of mirrors that the United States and Pakistan must negotiate when dealing with one another can be improved greatly by not focusing attention solely on the fight against insurgents in the FATA and Afghanistan, but also striving to make Pakistan’s government more stable and transparent.

Photo courtesy of Wetsun via FlickrE/em>