US-Pakistan Relations: The Irritants



Pakistani officials have stated recently that they will conduct an operation in the North Waziristan Agency, however the country has also emphasized that only it will decide on the timing. Two irritants continue to haunt the relationship between US and Pakistan, which has otherwise improved since the Pakistani military carried out a number of small and large-scale military offensives across the country, mainly against Pakistani Taliban (TTP). The irritants from the Pakistan side have to do with enhancing the capability of its Army to take on additional military operations, while from the US side the annoyance is linked to allegations of duplicity and deceit. These have been leveled at the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies by Western scholars, think tanks and officials.

At an elementary level however, the trouble remains the divergence of threat perceptions of the two countries. As the Afghan war enters a decisive stage, a number of tectonic shifts are taking place, represented recently by the departure of General McChrystal. Apparently, the cause was disrespecting the civilian authority but appearances are often misleading. The main tension boils down to whether the Afghan conflict will require a predominately military or a political solution.


The Pakistani forces have been trained for conventional warfare with India in deserts and plains of the Punjab and Sindh provinces. This is the first time that several divisions of the army are engaged in the mountainous areas of the North West Frontier Province, now called the Khyber-Pakhtoonkwa. The fight against the Taliban and other terrorists is mostly unconventional, and the Pakistan army feels it does not have the proper equipment.

According to reports, Pakistan has requested new helicopter gunships and armed helicopters, including AH-1W, Apache-64-D and AH-6, MD-530 Little Bird besides utility and cargo helicopters, such as UH-60 Black Hawk, CH-47 D Chinook and the UH-1Y Huey. Pakistan has also demanded M1A1 tanks, M113A3 armored personnel carriers and air-defense missiles including the Stinger, Javelin and Hawk. The US$2.5 billion list also includes a request for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

Recently, the Pakistani Ambassador to Washington said that military operations against terrorists would have been quicker and much easier to plan and execute if the US had provided the needed military equipment to the Pakistani forces. While the US reluctance or delays in providing the equipment Pakistani military is seeking to fight the Taliban is certainly an irritant, Pakistani officials state the ball is now in the US court.

The Intent of Pakistan Army

The annoyances in the US-Pakistan relations are also the accusations and charges that Pakistan still supports the Taliban. Recently, Matt Waldman, a fellow at Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, claimed in a report that there is “very significant levels of support being provided by the ISI” to the Taliban leadership. He went on to the extent of claiming it is “official policy of that agency” and ISI agents have even attended meetings of the Taliban’s top leadership council, the so-called Quetta Shura. The report also pointed the finger at Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari who, it said, visited senior Taliban prisoners in Pakistan earlier this year. Pakistan Army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas replied to the report stating that the LSE report lacked credibility. “It is baseless. The sacrifices by Pakistan’s army and the ISI and the casualties in the war on terror speak for themselves,” he said.

Some Pakistani experts thought the report, which appeared at the heels of the Indo-US strategic dialogue, seemed a crude attempt to please the Indian lobby. Others wondered if the report was a clear evidence of US and NATO failures in Afghanistan and a reflection of frustration at the mounting casualties.

Pakistan believes that such reports create mistrust between the West and the Pakistani military. They say that for an effective war strategy and its implementation against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, it is imperative that there should be a strong relationship between the Pentagon and the NATO on one side and the Pakistani military on the other side. However, the public support for this war is equally an important variable, which often gets left out.

PoliTact’s observations of the US think tanks have revealed a very hostile attitude developing towards Pakistan’s military. An event held on June 24, 2010 on Capitol Hill organized by the Pakistani American Congress to commemorate the US-Pakistan friendship ironically revealed more criticism of the Pakistan Army by the US based scholars. This was mostly done in connection with sustaining democracy in Pakistan. However, the event also provided two other different viewpoints on Pakistan in the US; one held by the State Department and the other by US Congress. While the views of the think tanks were harsh, the congressional and state department outlook appeared to be much more sympathetic towards the predicament of Pakistan and its Army. (The video footage is available on PoliTact’s website.). It should be noted that Pakistan friendly US politicians mostly attended the event. It should also be pointed out that the opinions of think tanks do ultimately impact the policy makers in Washington.

The views of renowned journalist Landay Jonathan of McClatchy Group on the threat perceptions of Pakistan towards India and the role of the Pakistan Army in the fight against extremists, generally appeared to be out of sync with the traditional perceptions widely held in Pakistan. So much so, that they irritated an official of the Pakistan Army at the Embassy in the US. He objected to these views of Landay and for disrespecting the Pakistani soldiers that have lost their lives in the fight against extremists. Another well-known scholar Stephen Cohan of Brookings joined in support of Landay, and questioned the Army official about whether he had attended the Staff College, perhaps deemed a prerequisite to understand threat perceptions under a nuclear environment of South Asia. Robert Hathaway of the Wilson Center went as far as to suggest that Pakistan has no future if does not deal with the issues and takes responsibility for them. While Marvin Weinbaum of the Middle East Institute clearly pointed out that an adverse outcome for the US in Afghanistan would in no way bode well for the future of Pakistan.

In short the scholars, appeared to have tag teamed in criticizing the role of Pakistan’s military, in an event organized under the auspicious of improving US-Pakistan relations. However, the Deputy Chief of Mission at the Pakistan Embassy Aslam Khan, clarified toward the end of the ceremony that no one should tell Pakistan what its threat perceptions should be and it can only be understood in the historical context. The above illustration clearly depicts how two important allies are clearly at odds with each other, about how they envision the shape of the future after the war has ended.


As alluded to earlier, appearances can be an illusion. The frustration represented at the above-mentioned event boiled down to whether the Afghan conflict will require a predominately military or a political solution, and Pakistan’s role in it. Meanwhile, Pakistan appears to have escalated the political approach and its reconciliation process. There are media reports that General Kiyani may have himself be facilitating the reconciliation between the Haqqani network and Karzai. There definitely appears to be pressures within the Afghan Taliban groups not to be left out of the reconciliation, be it the Hekmatyar led Hizbe Islami or Mullah Omar faction representing the Afghan Taliban. The real goal ultimately is the isolation of Al Qaeda from its supporting network and the question of if this can be best achieved at this stage through the use of force or a political approach.

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