U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides is scheduled to arrive in Islamabad on Wednesday for talks on ways to improve U.S.-Pakistani relations. Nides’ trip to the Pakistani capital comes within days of similar visits by Gen. James Mattis, the head of U.S. Central Command, and Gen. John Allen, the U.S. commander of NATO troops in Afghanistan. Washington and Islamabad have been working on improving bilateral ties. Relations hit an all time low in November 2011, after U.S. airstrikes against a Pakistani military post along the country’s northwestern border with Afghanistan resulted in the deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers.
In response, the Pakistani government shut down the NATO supply route, asked U.S. forces to vacate an air base, and suspended military and intelligence cooperation. Seizing upon the opportunity provided by the deaths of its servicemen, Islamabad is engaged in an effort to redefine the nature of the U.S.-Pakistani relationship developed during the decade-long U.S.-jihadist war. Compounding the difficult relationship is the fact that Pakistan has seen the rise of democratic governance over the past four years.
The current Pakistani government, led by President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, inherited a situation from the military regime of Gen. Pervez Musharraf where the deposed ruler had allowed the Pentagon and the CIA a great deal of latitude in operating on Pakistani soil. U.S. forces used the situation to create a great degree of unilateral operational capability — both in the form of intelligence collection as well as the much more publicized unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) strikes against jihadist leaders in Pakistan’s tribal belt.
Musharraf’s political and military successors have lived with this fait accompli since March 2008. During the past four years, mistrust between the United States and Pakistan has resulted in a very tense working relationship. Matters came to a head in 2011 following a series of incidents that included the killing of two Pakistani nationals at the hands of a CIA contractor in Lahore, the killing of Osama bin Laden by an elite U.S. special forces team in Abbottabad and the aforementioned U.S. aircraft attack that left two dozen Pakistani troops dead on Nov. 26.
Since then, Pakistan’s civil and military stakeholders have been demanding that the rules of engagement with the United States be revised. Islamabad has argued that the unwritten agreement between the Musharraf regime and the Bush administration no longer applies and that it actually harms civilian government efforts to stabilize the country, which has been suffering from the fallout of the U.S. war in neighboring Afghanistan. Consequently, the Pakistani parliament has been working on a framework that the government would have to abide by in future relations with Washington.
Public discourse on this issue has focused on the re-opening of the NATO supply route, but that is not the real issue for two reasons. First, NATO no longer depends on Pakistani supply routes due to the existence of the air bridge and the Northern Distribution Network that runs through areas of the former Soviet Union. Second is the overall relationship between Pakistan and the United States.
Pakistan cannot afford to be at odds with the United States. Conversely, the United States needs Pakistan in its efforts to exit Afghanistan. More important, though, is the fact that the United States cannot afford an unstable Pakistan, which threatens the region as well as U.S. interests.
But the problem is that this long-term American interest conflicts with its short-term need to fight transnational jihadists headquartered in Pakistan. The latter requires the United States to freely operate in Pakistan, particularly through the use of UAV strikes. Pakistani stakeholders cannot allow this as they govern an increasingly challenging country. Therefore, the United States and Pakistan must work out a compromise that allows both countries to move beyond the current impasse, enabling Washington and Islamabad to better manage a fast approaching post-NATO Afghanistan.