US-Pakistani relations have always been fraught, but for the past year there has been a particularly frosty period between Washington and Islamabad. Relations soured distinctly with the unilateral US action that took out Osama Bin Laden in Abbotabad in May 2011, and worsened further when NATO troops killed 24 Pakistani army personnel in a border attack, which prompted Pakistan to close the NATO supply lines through their territory into Afghanistan. There was some small hope that a thaw would occur with the recent NATO summit held in Chicago, however the prosecution of Dr. Shakil Afridi for aiding the US has left both countries still at odds.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari attended the latest NATO summit in Chicago after a last-minute invitation from the Organization, but despite a small hope that relations could be salvaged at the summit, the NATO supply lines through Pakistan remain closed, and relations remain very strained.
The feeling coming from Washington is one of patience wearing thin, and the conviction of Dr. Shakil Afridi, who helped US intelligent services in the lead up to the Abbotabad operation, has been taken very badly in the US. Congress decided to cut Pakistan’s already-reduced aid budget by $33 million in protest of the 33-year sentence Dr. Afridi was handed on charges of treason. Moreover, the success of the Northern Distribution Network that has replaced the Pakistani supply lines has lessened Pakistan’s leverage with the US, and thereby increased the irritation in the US that Pakistan continues to behave in an obstructionist manner.
On the other side of the story, Pakistan is still smarting from what it perceived as a massive blow to its sovereignty with the unilateral strike in Abbotabad. This, coupled with the NATO killing of military personnel and the start up of drones strikes in Pakistani territory once again makes Islamabad extremely defensive and sensitive to the seeming carte-blanche the US has with regards to operating as they see fit in Pakistani territory. The cutting of the NATO supply lines and the prosecution of Dr. Afridi are just some of the means by which Islamabad is attempting to reassert its sovereignty.
The stark contrast in perception between the US and Pakistan is further widened by the duplicitous nature of Pakistan’s internal politics. The divide between the Army and the civilian government means that it is difficult to come up with a unified strategy for Pakistan, with the most salient case in point being Pakistan’s interaction with India. The view toward Afghanistan is murkier still, with no clear foreign policy in development, and each agency seemingly formulating its own strategy on what is in Pakistan’s best interest when it comes to Afghanistan.
The lack of clarity on Afghanistan has also made it much easier for onlookers in the US to assume the worst, and as they do, the voices calling for Pakistan to be labeled a state sponsor of terrorism are getting louder. Their involvement with the Haqqani Network and now the conviction of Dr. Afridi has only made this worse.
There was hope that Zardari’s visit to Chicago could smooth over some of the bumps, maybe negotiate to reopen the NATO lines through Pakistan and foster some good blood in the relationship, but this has not been the case. The US perceived the Pakistanis as ‘grubbing’ for money as the cost of running supplies through the country was raised. Pakistan perceived the visit as a snub, where no high-level meetings took place, and Pakistan was treated like an ‘accused’ according to one observer from The Frontier Post.
Changes Going Forward
2014 can’t come soon enough for some NATO members, as France has already announced that it will withdraw its troops early from Afghanistan. At a time when many NATO members are struggling under the economic pressures in Europe, the wind-down of the protracted war in Afghanistan is the least of their concerns, and it may be that other European NATO members will follow France’s lead.
The US Ambassadors to Pakistan and Afghanistan are both leaving and reportedly General Allen will depart Afghanistan early next year to take over US-European Command. This means fresh relationships will have to be forged, which could swing positively or negatively, depending on how the changeover is managed.
There is also a shift in the US strategy in Afghanistan, with Afghan security forces being moved to the front gradually, as relations with Pakistan remain sour, and the fear of Iranian influence escalates. Some experts think that a repeat of civil war scenario that played out in the aftermath of Soviet withdrawal in the 1980s is also on the cards after the 2014 withdrawal, particularly as Afghanistan has excluded its neighbors Iran and Pakistan from a strategic deal with western powers for post-2014 support. Meanwhile, the most serious threat comes from the ‘green on blue’ types of attacks.
While there is a huge amount of frustration and mistrust on both sides between the US and Pakistan, there is still enough ‘mutual benefit’ in a relationship that neither party will want to cut ties altogether, or resort to a unilateral approach. The strategic importance of the relationship is obvious; however the greatest risk comes from the growing voices inside both countries that are questioning the premise of the relationship. If either set of voices becomes so strong that their respective governments can no longer placate them, then there could be real trouble ahead for the future of the US-Pakistan relationship.