Calm Before the Storm

John Kerry’s Pakistan trip might be all smiles and handshakes, but there’s a crisis brewing beneath the surface.

John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images

On July 31, following several false starts, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Islamabad for meetings with Pakistan’s political and military leadership. And while the visit comes at a turbulent time for Pakistan — on the heels of a massive jail break in Dera Ismail Khan that saw more than 300 prisoners escape, including at least 25 members of the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) and militant Lashkar-e-Jhangvi group — it also comes at a time when U.S.-Pakistan relations have been remarkably cordial.

Pakistan’s May election, in which the country completed its first democratic transfer of power, appears to have put both capitals in a good mood. Shortly after his electoral triumph, Nawaz Sharif received a congratulatory call from President Barack Obama. Since then, Washington has announced new investments in Pakistan’s troubled energy sector, and Sharif has responded by promising to help facilitate America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and by vowing to cooperate on counterterrorism.

The goodwill has lasted since then, allowing for the resurrection of several moribund cooperative initiatives between Washington and Islamabad. For example, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Richard Olson, has stated his desire to re-launch the Strategic Dialogue — broad-based talks on non-security issues that have been grounded for several years. Meanwhile, on July 16, Pakistan’s finance minister, Ishaq Dar, indicated that talks will soon resume on a bilateral investment treaty between the two countries. These negotiations have occurred fitfully since 2005, but hit snags in more recent years.

Today represents a far cry from 2011, when CIA contractor Raymond Davis shot and killed two Pakistani civilians, when U.S. forces raided Osama Bin Laden’s compound without giving Pakistan advance notice, and when NATO aircraft accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers stationed on the Afghan-Pakistan border. Reprisals and angry rhetoric ensued on both sides. Islamabad shut down NATO supply routes to Afghanistan, and Adm. Mike Mullen — then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — famously referred to the Taliban-aligned Haqqani network as a "veritable arm" of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s spy network.

Relations remained tense into 2012, when then U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta openly called for a greater Indian role in Afghanistan — a message that surely infuriated Pakistan’s security establishment, which wants no Indian influence in Afghanistan.

Today, Washington and Islamabad are not one-upping each other with retaliatory acts, and the charged rhetoric has been toned down. Instead of lambasting Pakistan for what it doesn’t do –such as launching a military offensive in North Waziristan — Washington is commending Pakistan for what it does do. In May, for example, a Pentagon official praised Pakistan for adopting new measures that prevent fertilizers produced domestically from being used as bombs in Afghanistan. The two sides are even seeing eye-to-eye on the war in Afghanistan; both want to bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table.

Given these developments, does Kerry’s trip to Pakistan herald a new era of warm relations for the two reluctant allies? Don’t bet on it. The relationship between the United States and Pakistan may be in better shape than it was several years ago, but it remains troubled — and could easily plunge back into crisis.

One source of brewing tension is Islamabad’s interest in opening peace talks with the TTP, which is waging a brutal and unyielding insurgency against the Pakistani state — one that targets civilians, the government, and the military alike. Sharif campaigned heavily on the issue of talks, so his resounding electoral victory gives him a strong mandate to pursue negotiations. Since taking office, his government has floated the idea of launching a "working group" to explore talks — even as the TTP has declared its unwillingness to negotiate and continued to stage attacks. Likewise, the new provincial government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa — near Pakistan’s tribal belt — is led by a party sharing the PML-N’s desire to talk to the TTP.

For Washington, the fear is that a peace agreement between Islamabad and the TTP would merely appease a terrorist organization that has never respected such agreements previously. Back in early 2009, for example, after concluding peace deals with Islamabad, the TTP seized control of the picturesque region of Swat — a mere 60 miles from the capital, Islamabad. The group violently enforced a harsh form of Sharia law until the military recaptured the region several months later. This time around, the fear is that instead of laying down its arms, the TTP could again use a ceasefire to regroup — and then carve out new areas of control that enable it to intensify its campaign of attacks on NATO supply vehicles.

In effect, Pakistani peace talks with the TTP could imperil U.S. security interests in Afghanistan at a time when the Obama administration is desperately trying to orchestrate an orderly withdrawal from that country. Against this backdrop, the potential for bilateral friction is considerable.

Another looming crisis with the potential to derail U.S.-Pakistan relations is America’s drone war, despite the fact that U.S. strikes have tapered off in recent months. Pakistan’s previous governments have publicly condemned drone strikes while tacitly approving them — thus following the lead of the military, which has consented to them. But Sharif is taking a harder line, having declared an end to the policy of facilitating strikes from "behind the scenes" and demanded that the program end immediately.

Washington has no intention of ending drone strikes in Pakistan before the end of 2014; it has few other tools to deploy against Pakistan-based militants that target international forces in Afghanistan. Additionally, the Obama administration may feel compelled to take full advantage of drone strikes through the end of next year, given that their use after 2014 will likely decline.

The extent to which these issues aggravate U.S.-Pakistan relations in the coming weeks and months will depend on the Pakistani military — the ultimate arbiter of relations with the United States. The army’s position on peace talks with the TTP and drones appears closer to that of Washington than of Islamabad. The military is reportedly unhappy about the prospect of talking to extremists responsible for the deaths of thousands of soldiers. While it hasn’t ruled out negotiations, army statements suggest considerable uneasiness about the possibility.

As for drones, there’s little reason to think the Pakistani military will end a policy that has weakened the TTP, arguably its most formidable nemesis. Drone strikes have killed multiple high-level TTP targets, including commander Nek Muhammad in 2004, top leader Baitullah Mehsud in 2009, and second-in-command Wali ur-Rehman last month. A recent McClatchy report credited drones with breaking the TTP’s "chain of command and coherency."

If the military’s position on these issues carries the day, then the chances of fresh U.S.-Pakistan tensions are reduced. This presents the Obama administration with a conundrum: Its interests are best served if the Pakistani military marginalizes the very civilian government that Washington wants to help strengthen. In other words, if the Pakistani government pushes back against the military, U.S. security interests in Afghanistan could suffer.

Such pushback is certainly a possibility, given Sharif’s past tiffs with the army (one of which led to his ouster in 1999), and given his apparent desire to exert influence over matters traditionally controlled by the military. Soon after taking office, for example, Sharif announced he would take on the portfolios of defense and foreign affairs — two areas long overseen by the armed forces.

Then again, there’s no guarantee that the military’s positions will remain the same. November marks the end of Army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani’s term. If his replacement decides the army has suffered enough from fighting the TTP and opts for talks, and that drones are no longer worth supporting, then U.S.-Pakistan relations could revert to crisis mode. On the other hand, Washington could strike a deal with Islamabad that gives the latter more say over drones. Such an accord could defuse tensions, though it’s unclear if the bilateral relationship enjoys sufficient mutual trust to make such an agreement a reality.

Regardless of how this all plays out, one unsettling reality remains firmly in place: Pakistan’s security establishment continues to sponsor militant groups that threaten and attack the United States. Until there is peace with India — which won’t happen anytime soon — the Pakistani state will continue to offer sanctuary to the Afghan Taliban, Haqqani network, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), and other groups seeking to limit Indian influence in Afghanistan — and that pose direct threats to U.S. troops. No matter how smoothly relations may be sailing along, U.S.-Pakistan ties would take a major hit if the LeT were to commit an attack in the United States or — more realistically — if the Haqqani network were to launch another spectacular assault on American facilities in Afghanistan.

So by all means, expect Kerry’s Pakistan visit to feature smiles and handshakes. There may be announcements of new U.S. economic assistance projects, statements about cooperation on Afghanistan and counterterrorism, and timetables set for the re-launch of the Strategic Dialogue and bilateral investment treaty talks.

Yet behind the bonhomie, trouble lurks. Instead of depicting Kerry’s Pakistan trip as a prelude to an extended period of goodwill, we should simply regard it as a respite from the tensions that have contaminated the relationship in recent years — tensions that could easily flare up anew in the months ahead.

Michael Kugelman is the Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @michaelkugelman

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