No Easy Relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan

by James Walker


There has been a great deal of controversy recently in the U.S. over the publication of No Easy Day, a personal account of the mission to kill Osama Bin Laden written by one of the elite Seal Team 6 members who took part in the raid, Matt Bissonnette. The book was released on September 4th, and was immediately listed as the number one best selling book on The memoir raised concerns on many levels domestically, with much attention paid to the possibility that the author might have revealed classified information, that he had not obtained prior clearance to write the book at all from the powers that be, that the account differed in some respects from the official version, that he had broken the unwritten code of silence within the Special Ops community, and that the revelation of his real identity (by conservative news broadcasters Fox News) placed him and his family in harms way. Gallons of ink have been spilled exploring these issues, but this controversy also raises questions concerning the effect of publishing sensitive information in the International Relations (IR) realm.

As can be imagined, the publication of the book has not been beneficial in regards to the strained relationship between the United Statesand Pakistan. Still smarting from the raid itself, which was conducted without the knowledge or acquiescence of the state, and with a justifiable sense of outrage at the infringement of its national sovereignty, the Pakistani government has nonetheless been remarkably subdued in its official response. However, the relationship between the two countries has been badly strained over the past year. In particular, the Pakistani Intelligence Services (ISI) have been very active in responding domestically to the raid.

As a result of ISI investigations, a number of significant repercussions have taken effect. Perhaps the most visible has been the prosecution and conviction for treason of Dr. Shakil Afridi, a Pakistani doctor who assisted in a CIA sponsored genetic screening operation disguised as an inoculation program. The US has confirmed that the program took place, and that it provided significant information in the search for Bin Laden. Dr. Afridi was arrested 20 days after the raid, and has been sentenced to 33 years in prison. Recent news reports suggest that he was subjected to torture during his incarceration before trial, and continues to suffer inhuman treatment at the hands of the security forces.

Aside from the repercussions to Dr. Afridi, the revelation of CIA involvement in a public health initiative has had a severe impact on distinctly non-state oriented actors and initiatives. Multiple humanitarian organizations have reported that their ability to provide assistance and public health programs to people in the region has been badly curtailed. Warlords and tribal elders have made health workers persona non grata, leading to significant issues with a resurgence in levels of childhood disease, and other public health concerns. This rather begs the question of why the US government would ever admit to having done such a thing in the first place. In this instance, the actions of the state in releasing information have had a direct effect on the non-state realm.

Which brings us back to No Easy Day and its potential impact on the IR world. Unlike the sad case of Dr. Afridi, nothing about the publication of Mr. Bissonnette’s book has the imprimatur of the US government; quite the contrary. However, while the contents of the book describe a sanctioned US operation, the publication itself is a distinctly private, non-state actor affair, and one that has the potential to impact the state of play between two sovereign nations. While there has been no official response to the book’s release from Pakistan, it is not surprising to see that it is considered an insult to the state. Many commentators have described this book as an example of the lack of regard shown by the US, and view the silence of an official response to the publication as a sign of weakness and insecurity domestically. This plays into a major political debate within Pakistan in regards to its relationship with the US. For example, Dr. Afridi describes his ISI interrogators as stating that “the Americans are our worst enemies; worse than the Indians.” That is a powerful statement, given the 70 year history of aggression and warfare between India and Pakistan.

Doubtless the details of the raid in No Easy Day will add further points of contention to the internal political dialog in Pakistan, and that is why this book is such an interesting point of reference for students of IR. In classical Waltzian Realist IR theory, the actions of the domestic realm and the international realm are distinct entities, and never the twain shall meet. Ian Clark describes this notion as the “Great Divide” between Political (Domestic) Science and IR as fields of study, and argues that it is a false distinction. So much attention has been focused in the US on the domestic impact and repercussion of this book, with the debate almost entirely framed in regards to the propriety of publishing such a personal account of a secret mission. The questions asked are exclusively concerned with duties towards the state and comrades in arms, verses personal gain, becoming a best selling author, and being used as a political tool during an election year. However, this book has the potential to impact the domestic political debate of BOTH countries, and by extension the field of IR as a study of the relationship between sovereign entities. No Easy Day suggests that the actions of a private individual who chooses to publish a memoir can transcend the great divide between the domestic and the international. It is not just the actions of states that impact the field of play, however attached to Kenneth Waltz we may be.

While the raid to kill Bin Laden in Abbatobad, Pakistan was a distinctly Waltzian, realist operation, the repercussions have been anything but. The release of information by the state has significantly impacted the non-state realm causing transnational effects on humanitarian efforts, and domestic impacts within both sovereign parties to the event. At the same time, the actions of Mr. Bissonnette, one year removed from the event itself, are showing themselves capable of impacting the domestic political arena of these two distinct nations. When we focus only on the domestic implications of this book, we leave out a vital dimension in our considerations. The boundary between the domestic and the international arenas is far more blurry than we like to think, and in this instance the great divide has never looked quite so easy to traverse.

James Walker is a fourth year Global Studies Major at UCLA, and a lifelong social activist. His research interests focus upon international governance and institutional legitimacy, with an emphasis on personal accountability, and the development of the International Criminal Court.



  • “Pretty good”, NewJames! And you know what I mean.

  • Great article James!

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