National Security Network

The U.S.-Pakistan Rift

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Report 21 April 2011

Pakistan Pakistan


Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen returned today from a trip to Pakistan, as the Pakistani Foreign Minister arrives in Washington. These high-level exchanges are intended to get relations back on track following a tumultuous few months. Frustration is high, but both sides, and bipartisan experts, understand that abandoning the relationship is not an option. As Adm. Mullen said in an interview, "I think that all of us believe that we cannot let this relationship come apart."

U.S.-Pakistan relations are stretched. In recent months, the strains between the United States and Pakistan have been growing.  The Wall Street Journal reports, "Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Pakistani news channel Wednesday that links between Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence military spy agency and the Haqqani faction of the Taliban were continuing to strain relations between the countries. Adm. Mullen's comments to GEO TV, a private network, signal that the U.S. is not backing down from an increasingly hostile battle with Pakistan over how to combat Islamist militants who operate on the border with Afghanistan. ‘We have strong reservations over the relations of elements of the ISI with the Haqqani network,' Adm. Mullen said... Adm. Mullen's two-day visit to Pakistan, which began Wednesday following a trip to Afghanistan, comes after Pakistan threatened earlier this month to reduce the number of Central Intelligence Agency operatives allowed to operate in the country after Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor, shot dead two armed men in January in the Pakistani city of Lahore. Mr. Davis was arrested and only released after the U.S. agreed to pay compensation to the dead men's relatives."

The Journal continues, "Islamabad also has begun publicly to oppose the CIA's campaign of unmanned drone strikes against militant targets in Pakistan's tribal regions bordering Afghanistan. Pakistan's army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, last month condemned a drone strike that killed more than 40 people, saying that it hit civilians and that the attacks were hurting Pakistan's own war against militants. U.S. officials say civilian deaths are small. Adm. Mullen's comments about the ISI's continued links with the Haqqani network show how the U.S. is keeping up the pressure on Pakistan to clamp down on militant safe havens as it prepares to begin a gradual draw-down of troops from Afghanistan starting in July."

The Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow Daniel Markey explains the Pakistani view: "the present crisis has roots in Islamabad's frustration that the United States is using tactics that weaken terrorist organizations that have historically been on the Pakistani intelligence service's payroll and are not perceived as threats to the Pakistani state. Pakistanis see unannounced U.S. drone strikes on North Waziristan-based fighters in the Haqqani network and the Hafiz Gul Bahadur group as killing militants with whom Islamabad enjoys influence and--by many accounts--nonaggression pacts. Worse, the Raymond Davis case exposed U.S. efforts to spy on Lashkar-e-Taiba, a group with even closer ties to the Pakistani state." [WS Journal, 4/20/11. Daniel Markey, 4/14/11]

Pakistan remains key to U.S. interests on security and regional challenges. Whatever issues challenge the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, the country remains vital to U.S. interests:  it will soon be the world's largest Muslim country, it possesses nuclear weapons, and it has a central role in combating global terrorism and in how the future unfolds with its neighbors India, Afghanistan, China and Iran. Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Bruce Riedel notes, "Pakistan has more troops deployed fighting jihadi militants on the Afghan border than NATO has in all of Afghanistan," and that "Pakistan controls the main supply line for NATO forces from Karachi to Kabul in Afghanistan."  The Council on Foreign Relations writes: "Militants in Pakistan and Afghanistan pose a direct threat to the United States and its allies. They jeopardize the stability of Pakistan, a nuclear power that lives in an uneasy peace with its rival, India." With regards to Pakistan's role in a political solution in Afghanistan, a recent report from Thomas Pickering and Lakhdar Brahimi states that, "Pakistan's leadership has affirmed its willingness to participate  in a political resolution to the conflict and emphasized its ability to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table and influence their decisionmaking. Without its active involvement, such a process is unlikely to succeed, though Islamabad should not be understood to speak for the Taliban." And Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, the former Chairmen of the 9/11 Commission, recently testified that Pakistani actions, though incomplete, "are working against al Qaeda and allied groups."

Making progress on these objectives requires a long-term commitment. As Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mullen said during his visit this week, "We can't just snap our fingers and say 'OK, we trust each other now... This has to be carefully and constantly worked on." Mullen went on to note that failing to uphold that commitment would involve significant dangers. "We walk away from it at our peril, quite frankly," he warned. Shuja Nawaz, director at the South Asia Center of the Atlantic Council, explains: "I think there's common agreement about the ultimate goal, which is stability in Afghanistan and stability in Pakistan. But short of that, how you get there is still a work in progress." [Bruce Riedel, 4/18/11. CFR, 11/10. Michael Mullen via American Forces Press Service, 4/20/11. Michael Mullen via CBS News, 4/20/11. Thomas Pickering and Lakhdar Brahimi, 3/23/11. 9/11 Commission Chairmen, 3/30/11. Shuja Nawaz, 4/12/11]

The alternative - not working with the Pakistani government - is much worse.  CBS reports, "Mullen acknowledged that the two countries were in the midst of a ‘turbulent time,' but that both countries understand the importance of salvaging the situation. ‘I think that all of us believe that we cannot let this relationship come apart,' he said." As the Atlantic Council put it: "Perhaps no bilateral relationship in the world matches that of the United States and Pakistan when it comes to its combustible combination of strategic importance and perilous instability."  Last year, a bipartisan Council on Foreign Relations "Pak-Af" task force chaired by Sandy Berger and Richard Armitage considered the alternatives and concluded, "Engagement, partnership, and investment-with markers of progress-in support of common objectives are more apt to encourage desirable results."

Recently, the task force's director and CFR senior fellow Daniel Markey noted that, "All of Washington's goals would be best achieved by working in partnership with the people and government of Pakistan. But that does not mean U.S. policymakers should measure success by whether Pakistanis are pleased with their efforts. Some U.S. policies will be unpopular because they require significant and painful revisions to the status quo. Thus, even in this moment of crisis, Washington should resist the temptation to patch things up and get back to some lesser version of ‘business as usual.' At the same time, the opposite temptation--to throw up our hands in frustration with Pakistan and seek alternate regional partners (as some in the U.S. Congress have suggested)--would be even more dangerous. At best, the road to more successful partnership with Pakistan will be long, frustrating, and costly. But cultivating this partnership is probably still the best way to avoid facing a future in which a nuclear-armed Pakistan of nearly two hundred million people remains wracked by instability, riddled with extremists, and convinced that the use of militant proxy forces best serves its interests in the region." [CBS News, 4/20/11. Atlantic Council, 6/10. CFR, 11/10. Daniel Markey, 4/14/11]

What We're Reading

Libyan rebels have overrun a post on the Tunisian border in a rare advance against government troops in the west of the country.

A South Korean and an Italian cargo ship are suspected to have been hijacked by pirates in the Arabian Sea.

Forces loyal to Ivory Coast's President Alassane Ouattara have exchanged fire in the main city of Abidjan.

A leading Bahraini human rights activist is on trial in a military court, his daughter believes.

Truck drivers in the Chinese city of Shanghai have staged a second day of protest over rising fuel prices.

More than 200 families have been left homeless in central Colombia after a mudslide swept away their houses.

Asylum-seekers set fire to an immigration detention center in Sydney, burning nine buildings to the ground after Australian authorities denied some of their requests for refugee status.

British Petroleum has sued Transocean, the operator of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, for at least $40 billion, seeking damages and other costs.

The European Union has offered to provide troops to escort relief convoys into Libya.

The European Commission requested a nearly five percent increase in funds for its 2012 budget, sparking opposition from member states demanding a spending freeze.

Commentary of the Day

Abdulluh Gul says that an Israeli-Palestinian deal is essential for peace in the region and that Turkey can help make it happen.

Zaid Al-Ali discusses what Egypt can learn from post-Saddam Iraq in the drafting of a new constitution.

Dorothy Stuehmke debates whether the United States should restart its food aid program to North Korea.