The United States and Pakistan – An Up and Down Relationship- June 15th, 2012

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Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently visited India and Afghanistan where he made some interesting policy pronouncements. He advised the Indians to play a major role in Afghanistan’s reconstruction after NATO’s withdrawal from that blighted country in 2014. He especially wanted the Indian Army to help train thousands of Afghan National Army soldiers. The Indian response is not known but it seems that the departing Americans feel comfortable in subcontracting this task to the Indians. He also wanted the US and India to further develop a strategic relationship. Some analysts have interpreted Panetta’s remarks as a continuation of the US urging India to build itself militarily with US support, as a counterweight to China. While on Indian soil, he criticized the lack of help being given to NATO by Pakistan in the Afghanistan war. He stated pointedly that both India and the United States had difficulties in managing their relationship with Pakistan. He chuckled that the US had purposely kept the Pakistanis in the dark in the Navy Seal raid last year, which succeeded in locating and killing Osama bin Laden. Panetta continued with his anti-Pakistan tirade in Kabul, his next stop. He said that the US will continue with the unilateral drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas because the US had a right to defend itself against its enemies. These Al-Qaeda terrorists were also enemies of Pakistan, he added. He also stated that “we are reaching the limits of our patience here, and for that reason it is extremely important that Pakistan take action to prevent this kind of safe haven from taking place [sic] and allowing terrorists to use their country as a safety net in order to conduct their attacks on our forces.” The writer, Brian Cloughley, an expert on the Pakistan Army who writes regularly on Afghanistan, in an article in Counterpunch compared Panetta’s statement to one made by Adolf Hitler in Berlin on September 26, 1938 when he proclaimed that “with respect to the Sudeten German problem my patience is now exhausted! I have made Mr. Benes an offer, which contains nothing but the realization of what he himself assured us would be done. The decision is in his hands. Peace or war!” Cloughley understandably was quite critical of Panetta’s statement. He proffered the view that if the US tried to do to Pakistan what Hitler did to Czechoslovakia in 1939 they would find rather stiffer opposition than that offered “by the poor bullied Czechs”. Cloughley is also right in suggesting that in an environment where there has been a serious downturn in Pakistan-US relations, Panetta’s comments in Delhi and Kabul are akin to pouring more fuel on the fire. Cloughley went on to say “Panetta goes on threatening Pakistan with military action, and to make things even worse, he made such a threat during his speech to India’s Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi (before going on to Kabul and deliberately avoiding a visit to Pakistan). His choice of venue to deliver an anti-Pakistan diatribe could not have been more deliberately insulting and downright stupid.” It is possible that Panetta may be playing “good cop, bad cop”, but his remarks were decidedly undiplomatic.

It is worth recalling that the widening chill in the US-Pakistan relationship was also a consequence of a series of negative events in 2011, including the killing of two Pakistanis in Lahore by a CIA operative in January 2011, the unilateral attack by American commandos on Osama bin Laden’s hiding place without informing the Pakistanis, and lastly, the friendly fire killing of two dozen Pakistani officers and soldiers at a border post last November. Pakistan insists on an apology for this incident which infuriated Pakistanis, while the furthest the US has gone is to express ‘regrets’. This standoff has led to Pakistan stopping the passage of NATO containers ferrying war-related materiel from Karachi to Afghanistan across its territory. The stoppage is costing NATO an additional 100 million dollars per month to have this material transported from the much longer northern routes. The US is unhappy at incurring this additional financial burden of an increasingly unpopular war in the eyes of the American public.

Significantly under the Obama regime, the US has stepped up its drone attacks on purported Al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan’s tribal areas. According to credible sources, President Obama himself selects targets from a kill-list! President Johnson used to do something similar by poring over Vietnamese maps to pinpoint military targets! The drone attacks are deeply unpopular in Pakistan. The Pakistani Parliament has asked the US to stop them. But the US has refused, citing these as an essential component in the US armory in eliminating the enemies of the US. The US does have a point in asserting that many of these militants are also enemies of Pakistan. Pakistan’s objection is that many innocent civilians are killed in these attacks, which is unacceptable. Also such unilateral strikes constitute an infringement of Pakistan’s sovereignty. In an OP-ED article in the New York Times on June 14 2012, Ibrahim Mothana a Yemeni writer, has argued that CIA drones have killed a large number of civilians and that these drone attacks help strengthen the Al-Qaeda organization in Yemen. He quoted a Yemeni lawyer warning on Twitter “Dear Obama, when a US drone missile kills a child in Yemen, the father will go to war with you, guaranteed. Nothing to do with Al-Qaeda.” Mothana feels that the US counter-terrorism policy via drones, by making Yemen less safe and by strengthening support for Al-Qaeda there, could also ultimately endanger the United States and the entire world.

I believe that eventually the US and Pakistan are likely to reach a modus vivendi. At this crucial stage before the 2014 withdrawal of US and NATO troops from Afghanistan, both countries need to get back to a working relationship. Both also need to work on avoiding as far as possible, what I call a ‘yo-yo effect’, recognizing that like many relationships in international affairs, the US-Pakistan relationship has also evolved: from a Cold War security partnership to a 21st century transactional relationship. Any relationship between two sovereign countries requires to be nurtured through accommodation and compromise on the part of both parties.

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