U.S.-Pakistan Relations: Are the Partners Finally Headed for Divorce?
The latest twist in U.S.-Pakistani relations has come to reveal a deepening rift that is proving increasingly difficult to mend. Last weekend’s killing of Osama bin Laden in the heartland of Pakistan has caused tensions to plummet, but relations have clearly been deteriorating for some time. The current low was initiated by CIA agent Raymond Davis’ killing of two Pakistanis with alleged links to the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), Pakistan’s spy agency. A high-profile diplomatic dispute ensued, eventually leading to Mr. Davis’ release in exchange for $2.3 million in compensation to the victims’ families. Closely following this, U.S. drone strikes hit a tribal jirga in Pakistan’s North Waziristan region, killing several Pakistani civilians and causing tensions to exacerbate. Combined with bin Laden’s killing these events call into question the effectiveness of the Obama administration’s Af-Pak Strategy adopted just two years ago, and with the latest White House report on the state of the war in Afghanistan affirming “there remains no clear path toward defeating the insurgency (in Pakistan)”, we may be witnessing the start of a new phase of U.S.-Pakistani relations. Clearly, both Islamabad and Washington have contributed to the current downward spiral and despite the allies’ inherent co-dependency this trend is likely to persist, unless both sides manage to reconcile their strategic interests.
However, as long as the Pakistani military remains a powerful political, economic, and social actor, this will prove exceedingly difficult. Since coming to office President Obama has worked to shift the focus of the so-called War on Terror to Pakistan, recognizing the direct link between a stable and prosperous Pakistan and success in Afghanistan. This acknowledgement has not only translated into increased financial support for the civilian government, estimated at $7.5 billion, but also a military aid package of $2 billion, and increased intelligence sharing between the CIA and the ISI. Moreover, the counterterrorism effort conducted in Pakistan’s tribal areas has become one of the administration’s top priorities. However, despite the Pakistani government’s official support for the strategy, military and intelligence officials widely see it as a breach of sovereignty and thus have become increasingly reluctant to provide the Americans with intelligence support. The unilateral U.S. operation that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden last weekend is a prime example of the strategy. The United States’ decision to conduct the operation without informing the Pakistanis illustrates the growing lack of trust in the partnership. It also raises questions about Pakistan’s complicity in sheltering bin Laden, as it is inconceivable that the Pakistani security and military establishment was wholly unaware of bin Laden’s whereabouts. Born out of a culture dominated by paranoia about foreign influence, particularly India, the military and ISI’s main objective is to undermine Indian influence in the region.
In the context of Afghanistan, they are also concerned about the problems posed by ethnic separatism, which they fear will be accentuated by the Hamid Karzai regime in Kabul. Coupled with the conviction that the United States will eventually pull out of Afghanistan, leaving a power vacuum just waiting to be filled, the army and ISI have secured their influence by supporting various pro-Taliban elements such as the Haqqani network. As long as the military remains the most powerful institution in Pakistan, India centric views will continue to dominate strategic thinking, and thus reconciling Pakistani and U.S. interests will remain near impossible. The Pakistani military’s unwillingness to effectively combat various terrorist elements within its borders has led the United States to employ drone strikes as part of its counterterrorist strategy in the region. While the Pakistani authorities have always taken issue with the strikes, they have only just recently chosen to criticize them publicly. In the aftermath of the March 17th drone strikes that left a number of Pakistani civilians dead, army chief General Ashfaq Kayani publicly condemned the act, asserting the U.S. had “carelessly and callously targeted” a peaceful meeting of elders. While Kayani reportedly also demanded the United States suspend its drone campaign, the administration has showed no sign of stopping, affirming that the “aggressive counterterrorism operations in Pakistan” will continue. In yet another move further demonstrating Pakistan’s increased self-assurance, the ISI has not only requested better oversight of U.S. intelligence officials operating in the country, but also demanded the U.S. decrease the number of security officials active in Pakistan. Huma Yusuf points out that while simultaneously granting chief of the ISI Lieutenant General Shuha Pasha an uncommon one-year extension, the ISI has gained the upper hand and will continue to use its newly acquired bargaining powers to push its interests through. With the ISI given the opportunity to flex its muscles, the diverging views that continue to cause strains in the relationship are set to exacerbate. In essence, recent events reflect the constant tug of war between American and Pakistani strategic interests. Although their opposing views are no novelty, the United States has clearly become less tolerant of Pakistan’s inaction as of late, while Pakistan continues to demonstrate an increasing willingness to push the envelope on certain key issues.
Ultimately, as long as the civilian government remains weak, the Obama administration will have no choice but to continue to engage directly with the military. Paradoxically, this will only lead to a further weakening of the very government the United States has spent billions of dollars on to strengthen. Clearly, as long as the military continues to hold the reins of power Pakistan will be forced to work against its real national interest, namely that of providing security and prosperity to its population and fighting the terrorist groups that claim hundreds of Pakistani lives every year. Despite claiming to have a shared set of strategic interests Pakistan’s obsession with India will continue to undermine U.S.-Pakistani cooperation. With the country’s most powerful institution dedicated to keeping India in check it is difficult to envision how a strong and sustainable alliance will ever come to fruition. While recent events have led both the United States and Pakistan to become more publicly critical of one another, it has also put their radically different strategic views in the spotlight.
Ultimately, as long as the United States stays committed to Afghanistan, Pakistan will remain an indispensable partner. However, with recent revelations indicating that the allies are further removed from each other than ever before, the Obama administration must think of new ways of addressing Pakistan’s civil-military imbalance in the hope of altering its strategic outlook.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.