reflections

Apr 12, 2011 | 03:46 GMT

6 mins read

Pakistan's Uneasy Relationship with the United States

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha visited Washington on Monday and met with CIA Director Leon Panetta. The trip gave Islamabad a chance to express its anger over the Raymond Davis affair. The CIA contractor's shooting on the streets of Lahore of two Pakistani citizens – followed by his lengthy detention and subsequent release – has generated waves of criticism amid the Pakistani populace, and has plunged the ISI-CIA relationship into a state of tension that surpasses the normal uneasiness that has always plagued the alliance between Washington and Islamabad. The Pakistani concern is that the U.S. will simply rush through a settlement in Afghanistan and exit the country without creating a sustainable post-war political arrangement. This would leave Pakistan to pick up the pieces. Pasha's central demand in the meeting with his American counterpart was reportedly that the United States hand over more responsibility for operations currently carried out by the CIA over Pakistani soil. This primarily means unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) strikes, immensely unpopular with the average Pakistani, but quietly seen as necessary by the political and military establishment, which has an interest in degrading the capability of the Pakistani Taliban. UAV strikes are most politically damaging for Islamabad when the joystick is in the hands of a foreigner; the thinking goes that handing over the controls to a Pakistani at home would greatly reduce popular objections to the bombing missions in northwest Pakistan. Tactically speaking, Pakistan would encounter problems of capability if it ever actually put its own people to the task of running the UAV missions, but this point is rendered moot by the fact that Washington would almost certainly never allow the ISI – seen as a hostile intelligence agency – to have access to some of America's most secret technology. The same day as Pasha's visit, the media reported that Pakistan had also demanded Washington dramatically reduce the number of CIA operatives and Clandestine Special Operations Forces working inside of Pakistan. Pakistani army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani reportedly wants 335 such personnel to leave the country, in addition to CIA "contractors" like Davis. These demands reflect the general Pakistani complaint that it is not seen as an equal by the U.S. government. Islamabad has cooperated with Washington for almost a decade in its war in Afghanistan, though that cooperation is not always forthcoming and helpful in the eyes of the United States. Despite being on the receiving end of billions of dollars of U.S. military aid, Pakistan asserts that the myopic focus on security since 2001 has prevented it from developing its own economy. Washington would counter that without security aid, Pakistan would not have developed to the extent that it has, not to mention issues of corruption and how that has hindered the Pakistani economy. Whatever the reality may be, this encapsulates the Pakistani view toward its relationship with Washington. Indeed, an interview given by Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari on April 10 focused extensively on Americans' lack of empathy regarding the help Pakistan is asked to provide Washington on the Afghan front. In addition to pointing to the existence of large amounts of natural gas that are not being developed for export because the issue falls low on the list of priorities created by the Afghan War, Zardari likened the impact of the Afghan War on Pakistan's border region to the intractability of the Mexican drug war on the borderlands of Texas, saying many U.S. politicians do not understand the impact American foreign policy has in the AfPak region. He also specifically called out members of the U.S. Congress for suffering from "deadline-itis," a term he coined to describe the compulsion to push ahead with the self-imposed deadline to withdraw from Afghanistan regardless of the realities on the ground. The United States knows that Pakistan is a critical ally in the Afghan War due to the intelligence it can provide on the various strands of Taliban operating in the country, but it simply does not trust the Pakistanis enough to hand over UAV technology or control over UAV strikes to Islamabad. With time running out before the start of its scheduled withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Pakistani concern is that Washington will simply rush through a settlement in Afghanistan and exit the country without creating a sustainable post-war political arrangement. This would leave Pakistan to pick up the pieces. Zardari is expected to visit the United States next month and will likely bring up the issue during the trip. He will remind U.S. President Barack Obama of Islamabad's view that it is in the United States' interests to utilize Pakistan's knowledge of Afghan politics in order to come to a real settlement in Afghanistan. Forming a makeshift solution through securing large cities and leaving the countryside in a state of disorder will only plant the seeds for an eventual resurgence of Taliban in the country, which would lead to bigger problems down the line for Pakistan. Gen. David Petraeus has noted publicly that the United States doesn't have the intelligence capabilities to succeed in Afghanistan on its own, meaning that it needs Islamabad's help. The Pakistanis see an opportunity in the current geopolitical environment to garner concessions from Washington that it would otherwise not be able to demand. Washington is distracted by myriad crises in the Arab world at the moment and AfPak is no longer the main course on its plate, as was the case for some time in the earlier days of the Obama presidency. Obama, who billed Afghanistan as the "good war" during his 2008 campaign, would very much like to point to some sort of success there when running again in 2012. For this, he would need Pakistan's help. The United States is being driven by short-term needs to preclude any sort of serious concessions being made to Islamabad, however. This weakens the Pakistani state just when Washington needs a strong one to help wield its influence in preventing Afghanistan from reverting back to its pre-Sept. 11 days. This is where Pakistan's leverage lies. However, the question of just how strong it is remains unanswered.

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