Shotgun Divorce

Pakistan's top diplomat is charged with resurrecting a relationship with the United States that seems only to get worse with time.


DOHA, Qatar – Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar wants an apology.

Khar, Pakistan’s youngest foreign minister and the first woman to hold the post, has contended with a series of crises that would overwhelm even the most veteran diplomat. There was the Raymond Davis affair, where a CIA contractor shot and killed two men in the city of Lahore, and the revelation that Osama bin Laden was hiding in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad — but the crisis Khar is trying to quell today relates to an attack that has been dubbed the "Salala incident."

On Nov. 26, two U.S. Apache helicopters, an AC-130 gunship, and two F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jets opened fire on two Pakistani military check posts along the Afghan-Pakistani border, killing 24 Pakistani soldiers. Pakistan reacted by shuttering the vital NATO ground supply routes into Afghanistan — they remain closed to this day. Pakistan’s parliament also responded in April by passing a 14-point set of guidelines meant to govern the U.S.-Pakistani relationship, which called on the government to seek an apology for the "condemnable and unprovoked" attack.

Khar challenged the United States to live up to its democratic ideals by respecting the will of Pakistan’s elected legislature. "A representative Parliament of 180 million people has spoken on one subject," she told Foreign Policy in an interview at the Brookings Institution’s U.S.-Islamic World Forum. "[This is] something which should have been forthcoming the day this incident happened, and what a partnership not only demands, but requires."

The United States, however, isn’t in the mood to say sorry. The relationship with Pakistan has hit its nadir in the past year — and to make matters worse, it’s now hostage to the election season. With Mitt Romney attacking Barack Obama as a president who "go[es] around the world and apologize[s] for America," the odds that the White House will give Khar what she wants, providing Republicans with political fodder in the process, appear slim.

Khar is well aware of the political obstacles, but focuses her appeal on America’s higher principles — to do "what we consider to be right rather than what is more popular." And after all, she argues, the dangers of operating based on purely political considerations goes both ways.

"For us in Pakistan … the most popular thing to do right now is to not move on NATO supply routes at all. It is to close them forever," she says. "If I were a political advisor to the prime minister, this is what I would advise him to do. But I’m not advising him to do that. One, I’m not his political advisor. And two, because what is at stake is much more important for Pakistan than just winning an election."

The latest challenge for the U.S.-Pakistani relationship is embodied by Shakil Afridi, the Pakistani doctor paid by the CIA paid to run a vaccination program as a cover for its intelligence-gathering operations in Abbottabad. In late May, a Pakistani tribal court sentenced Afridi to 33 years in prison — not for his work with the CIA, but for his alleged links to the militant group Lashkar-i-Islam. "Clearly, my advice at this point is that we don’t need to blow this out of proportion at all," Khar says, emphasizing that Afridi has two appeals of the judgment available to him. "But I would certainly not want this particular issue to cast a shadow over the relationship."

But other Pakistani officials have weighed in on the case, disparaging Afridi to the press as a heavy drinker, a womanizer, and professionally corrupt. Khar declined to disavow her colleagues’ words. "Typically, to give more information about people who become contentious is not very abnormal," she said. "If somebody is trying to give a better picture of what that person was about, good or bad … all of that is part of life."

The list of sticking points in the U.S.-Pakistani relationship stretches on. In the wake of a New York Times article laying out how Obama personally guided the drone war on Pakistani soil, Khar criticized the use of drones as counterproductive. "If you are creating 10 more targets for every target you take, are you doing a service or a disservice to your eventual goal of winning the war?" she asked.

Given the sheer volume of resentments the United States and Pakistan have accumulated since the beginning of 2011, Khar is often forced into the role of firefighter — and the fire raging the strongest right now is her Parliament’s demands for a reexamination of the relationship with the United States. She’s asking the White House to give her something, anything, to take back with her to Islamabad. "If the Parliament has 14 recommendations, maybe [on] four of them, [there could be] some movement forward," she says. "So we can say that yes, the aspirations and the will of the people of Pakistan are respected."

Whether she can accomplish that remains to be seen. Khar won the attention of the international media for cutting a glamorous figure on the world stage — has her gender and youth helped her rebuild the relationship with the United States? "I don’t know," she replies with a smile." If the last six months are anything to go by, it hasn’t helped me."