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US-Pakistan ties: prospects and fears

By Imtiaz Gul

Friday Times, August 12, 2011

On July 25, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen warned in a press briefing that US-Pakistan military-to-military ties were at a "very difficult" crossroads. "We are in a very difficult time right now in our military-to-military relations."

A week earlier, Admiral James Winnefeld, nominated to be the number two US military officer, had described Pakistan as a "very, very difficult" partner. "We don't always share the same worldview or the same opinions or the same national interest," Winnefeld had told the Senate confirmation hearing.

These two statements essentially define the main contours of the Pakistan-US relations, and also explain that Washington continues to treat Pakistan Army as the prime interlocutor, and the determinant of foreign policy on Afghanistan, India and the United States.

And this approach most probably also reflects a sense of realism as far as the American civilian and military leadership is concerned. On the one hand, they know the criticality of Pakistan Army in foreign and defence policy matters, and on the other, are also aware of the absence of the civilian government's seriousness in contributing to the foreign policy, borne by the fact that there was no foreign minister for several months after Shah Mehmood Qureshi called it quits in the aftermath of the Raymond Davis affair.

Let us now consider what comes out of Rawalpindi - the General Headquarters - on major foreign and defence matters.

Addressing officers of a war course at the National Defence University on May 19 this year, General Ashfaq Kayani, the army chief, spelled out some of the major factors that he thinks dog the relations with the United States. The most challenging among them is the lack of trust. Other two important challenges he underlined, are a) Pakistan's perspective on India and Afghanistan, and b) the approach towards the Haqqani Network.

Kayani had then explained that differences on a military campaign in North Waziristan, drone strikes and the "so-called Quetta Shura" are also issues which cause distrust between the two countries.

"You cannot have it (strategic relationship) until there is a better perception about US in Pakistan and Pakistan's better perception in United States," Kayani said in an apparent attempt to downplay the hyped-up notion of Pakistan-US strategic dialogue.

Certain parameters for the strategic dialogue need to be reset and must be based on national interests of two countries, the general said.

He wants the US to also understand "our frame of reference" which rests on Pakistan's geostrategic considerations. "The US' short term objectives should be reconciled with Pakistan's long term interests," he said, because Pakistan cannot change its neighbours. "Our long term interests should be taken care of to make us feel comfortable for a better co-existence with the US and with our neighbours," Kayani said, summing up the military high command's view on the relations with the United States.

Now, despite public pronouncements of mutual support and appreciation of the ties after Marc Grossman's latest visit coinciding with the tri-partite meeting at Islamabad, the core differences continue to dominate the dialogue. And the core party, by implication, remains Pakistan Army.

That is why, for now at least, any discussion on removing Pakistan-US differences and charting a new path for the bilateral relationship has to focus on how GHQ looks at the present and the future. Is it ready to amend its outlook on India and Afghanistan - as desired by the United States? Is it ready to take on the Haqqani network at a time when the US is desperately looking for "success stories" in Afghanistan? Probably not.

Washington wants Pakistan to crack down on all those militants who use North Waziristan territory for as a staging ground for attacks on US forces in Afghanistan.

Pakistan, on the other hand, still desires a deal for civilian nuclear energy, better access to US markets for Pakistani textile exports, a more pro-active US role for getting India to talk about Kashmir, and inter-alia, modern defence hardware for the army. Washington, Pakistani military and civilian officials argue, can use its nuclear deal with New Delhi, as a leverage for making India indulge in substantive dialogue on Kashmir.

One of the best summations on the Pakistan-US bickering came from Michael Kugelman (Af-Pak Channel, Foreign Policy Magazine, March 1, 2011), which basically sums up the entire issue.

"Unfortunately, US-Pakistan relations unfold in a climate of acrimony. Washington berates Islamabad - publicly and incessantly - for not taking sufficient action against militancy within its borders. Such hectoring rankles Pakistanis to no end, and hardens a perception at the heart of their mistrust of the United States - the perception that for Washington, security interests reign supreme and Pakistani lives are cheap. Constantly needling Pakistan to 'do more' about domestic militancy, Pakistanis believe, demonstrates callous disregard for the Pakistani soldiers killed in operations against extremists in recent years."

Although Kugelman also leaned on the same conclusions as does the US leadership (Islamabad has thus far to take action against key militant groups directly impacting America's fight in Afghanistan), yet he touched on those basics of the relations between Islamabad and Washington that continue to overshadow all expressions of goodwill and support.

The sub-surface mistrust of each other also suggests that unless both sides take a fresh look at their fundamental positions on key issues, both will remain locked in acrimony. And that is why, in the immediate future at least, the US-Pakistan relations in all probability will continue their helter-skelter course, without any substantial revisions or adjustments. The unusually high stakes, however, rule out a major breakdown in the ties. Things will most probably worsen if, instead of Pakistani Army and the intelligence, American CIA-and SEALs were to get hold of another high value target (HVT) such as the new Al Qaeda chief Ayman al Zawahiri from inside Pakistan. Mutual empathy and adjustment on core issues could possibly prevent the bilateral relations from tsunami-like shocks.

The writer heads the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk