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The South Asia Channel

The U.S.-Pakistan relationship in disarray

Pakistan’s prolonged detention of Raymond Davis, the CIA contractor who shot and killed two Pakistani motorcyclists in Lahore on January 27, has undoubtedly dealt a body blow to U.S.-Pakistan relations. Yet it would be a mistake to assume the U.S.-Pakistan relationship was plunged into crisis only after Davis pulled the trigger, and that it will ...

Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images
Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

Pakistan’s prolonged detention of Raymond Davis, the CIA contractor who shot and killed two Pakistani motorcyclists in Lahore on January 27, has undoubtedly dealt a body blow to U.S.-Pakistan relations.

Yet it would be a mistake to assume the U.S.-Pakistan relationship was plunged into crisis only after Davis pulled the trigger, and that it will remain so only as long as he languishes in his jail cell. In reality, the Davis affair represents just the latest chapter in a lengthening narrative — one of an unraveling partnership that some fear could rupture completely.
The ongoing U.S.-Pakistan struggles are often attributed to a mere trust gap, easily surmountable if each side convinces the other of its good intentions. Unfortunately, mutual suspicions are too historically ingrained simply to be wished away with soothing words.

Islamabad stews over what it perceives as America’s repeated betrayals, if not outright abandonment, of Pakistan — from Washington’s failure to help prevent the partition of Pakistan during a bloody civil war in 1971, to its reduced engagement with Islamabad following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in the late 1980s. Washington, meanwhile, steams about the billions of dollars of its aid that have been diverted or simply disappeared, along with the persistent evidence that elements of the Pakistani government and security forces still support key insurgent groups operating in Afghanistan, such as the Haqqani network. With relations held hostage to mutual suspicion, equivocations and prevarications are part and parcel of the partnership. For example, while the United States is coy about the status and activities of its security personnel inside Pakistan, the latter is ambiguous about the extent of its military’s ties to extremists.

Washington badly wants Pakistan to take definitive steps to root out militants in North Waziristan, who use this tribal area as a staging ground for attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Islamabad has thus far refused. Publicly, it argues that its army is overstretched, referring explicitly to ongoing flood relief activities and counter militancy operations in Pakistan’s other tribal areas, and implicitly to troops massed along its eastern border with India. Yet behind such explanations lurk the powerful strategic calculations that harden Islamabad’s position and that Washington can do little about: These anti-Afghan government extremists do not target the Pakistani government, some maintain links with the Pakistani military, and they offer a hedge against Indian influence in Afghanistan after U.S. forces have departed.

Pakistan’s wish list is also unlikely to be fulfilled. A deal to provide civilian nuclear energy? Virtually unfathomable, given Pakistan’s poor proliferation record. Better access to U.S. markets for Pakistani textile exports? This proposal has considerable support around Washington, but not from the powerful U.S. textile lobby. Also, proponents conveniently forget how Pakistan’s textile products are of decidedly lower value than those of Bangladesh and China. Efforts to get India talking about Kashmir? Given its keen interest in furthering its rapidly developing strategic rapport with New Delhi, Washington will likely continue to treat this issue very delicately.

A deteriorating relationship, even one marked by mutual mistrust and divergent interests, can be salvaged in an environment of civility. Unfortunately, U.S.-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. To be sure, however, Washington’s language, while harsh, is rooted in a very real fact: Islamabad has thus far to take action against key militant groups directly impacting America’s fight in Afghansitan.

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s feisty media-particularly the Urdu-language outlets consumed by the vast majority of the population-make a habit of insulting the U.S. government, contaminating much of its reportage with untruths that reflect the conspiracy theories embraced by a wide segment of Pakistani society. And while some of these theories-such as that Washington deploys security forces in Pakistan-have been proven accurate, others-such as that Washington somehow triggered last year’s horrific flooding-are patently absurd.

The United States routinely issues threats as well, some of which bring into question the very viability of the relationship. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared last year that an attack against the United States "traced to be Pakistani" would have "a very devastating impact on our relationship." Given the increasingly global reach of Pakistani militant organizations such as Lashkar e-Taiba and the Pakistani Taliban, and their demonstrated ability to cultivate ties with U.S.-based Pakistanis (consider the case of Mumbai attack plotter David Coleman Headley, or the links the FBI has alleged between several westerners and Pakistani militants), the possibility of such an attack is far from remote.

Yet even if no such attack occurs, the building pressure for Washington to demonstrate results in Afghanistan, with this summer’s looming deadline for the first troop withdrawals, could ratchet U.S.-Pakistan tensions up to the breaking point.  With America’s top targets — the political leadership of the Afghan Taliban, the Taliban-allied Haqqani Network, and al-Qaeda’s top officials – all holed up across Pakistan, Washington’s hectoring, unsuccessful so far, will surely intensify.

So long as this tough talk remains futile, expect an exasperated Washington to be increasingly inclined to take matters into its own hands. Already, the United States has intensified its deeply unpopular drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal belt. It has considered (though for now discarded) the idea of extending drone operations into Pakistan’s settled areas, and of expanding Afghanistan-based Special Operations raids into Pakistan. One likely possibility is that with an intensification of U.S. military activities in Afghanistan, fighting will more regularly spill over the border. This is risky for Washington; last year, when a U.S. helicopter pursuing militants across the frontier accidentally killed Pakistani soldiers, Islamabad responded by temporarily cutting off critical NATO supply routes into Afghanistan — supply routes so important that they constitute one of Washington’s chief motivations for enhancing and maintaining its ties with Islamabad.

Good news is hard to glean from this glum narrative, though Washington cannot afford to be resigned to this stasis. Engaging more comprehensively with Pakistanis, both elites and average Pakistanis with radically different perceptions of American  policy, is essential, though the impact of such steps on high-level relations will be admittedly modest. Additionally, the outcome regarded by many as the elixir for what ails the U.S.-Pakistan relationship-reconciliation between India and Pakistan-remains at best a long-term prospect (though the recent announcement to restart talks this summer is a welcome one).

Officials on both sides continue to pull out the requisite stops to maintain a happy face. Even as Pakistanis seethed with anger about the Davis episode, both capitals began signaling their desire to absorb the latest blow to the relationship and move on. Several weeks ago Sen. John Kerry (D-MA)  was dispatched to Pakistan to "reaffirm" the U.S. partnership, while high-level military officials recently met in Oman to mend fences. Such diplomacy, however, obscures the deep divide that drives the two reluctant allies apart. Yet around the time of the Oman meeting, the Associated Press revealed that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence had contemplated severing its relationship with the CIA. Such a split, between arguably the two most critical entities in Pakistan-U.S. relations, would sound the death knell for any prospect of a meaningful relationship.

For the immediate future, the best-case scenario is that U.S.-Pakistan relations will simply continue to muddle along. With too many fundamental differences to consummate a healthy, sustainable relationship, yet with too much at stake for both sides to sever ties, a very shaky status quo may well persevere.

Michael Kugelman is the South Asia program associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

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