National Security Network

U.S.-Pakistan Relationship in Perspective

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Report 17 May 2011

Pakistan Pakistan


In an effort to ease tensions between the U.S. and Pakistan, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA), with the blessing of the White House, recently visited Islamabad to meet directly with Pakistani officials. That visit produced a concrete deliverable - the return of the tail rotor of the helicopter that malfunctioned during the raid that killed Osama bin Laden - but it occurred as reports of clashes on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan and a dispute over U.S. reimbursements for Pakistani military operations once again raised tensions. The hot-and-cold relationship between the two countries belies the fact that, as former U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Wendy Chamberlin says, "we need each other. And it's very important to both of our national objectives that we maintain a good relationship." The relationship is too important for loose speculation about Pakistani knowledge of bin Laden's whereabouts.  But the moment is ripe for coolheaded thinking - and private pressure on Pakistan to make tough moves to eradicate extremism-a step that would serve the interest of both countries.

Despite small signs of a thaw as Sen. Kerry visits Pakistan, tensions remain high. The Wall Street Journal reports on Sen. Kerry's visit: "Sen. Kerry, who has become a trouble-shooter for the Obama administration in Pakistan, met with senior civilian and military leaders during a 24-hour visit meant to soothe Pakistani anger at not being informed about the raid, while also keeping up pressure on Islamabad to do more in its fight against militancy... Sen. Kerry said he had agreed with Pakistan's leaders to a ‘road map' of actions both sides will follow over the next few months. Two senior U.S. officials will arrive later this week to further detail those steps, before a visit by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, which hasn't yet been scheduled, Sen. Kerry said." Sen. Kerry's meeting produced an important concrete deliverable. The WSJ explains, "In one step, Pakistan has agreed to return the tail section of a U.S. helicopter that was damaged during the raid on bin Laden's compound."

Those modest moves  come amid continued disputes and deep mutual antagonism over the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. As the AP reports, today a "NATO helicopter crossed into Pakistani territory and opened fire on a border post, wounding two soldiers and drawing return fire, local officials said... A Western military official in Afghanistan gave a different version of events, but he and a NATO spokesman said there was firing at the border. They did not confirm that Pakistani border troops were the target or had been hit." Another story in today's Wall Street Journal reports on an escalating dispute between the two countries over who will pay military expenses: "Washington, increasingly dubious of what it sees as Islamabad's mixed record against militants, has been quietly rejecting more than 40% of the claims submitted by Pakistan as compensation for military gear, food, water, troop housing and other expenses." Continued disputes show the deep undercurrent of mistrust between the countries and the size of the gulf between them. [WSJ, 5/17/11. AP, 5/17/11. WSJ, 5/17/11]

U.S. should leverage bin Laden killing to make changes in relationship. President of the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars and former Congresswoman Jane Harman said on MSNBC's Morning Joe this morning that, she would like to "hit the reset button" with Pakistan, but going forward there should be "some nonnegotiable asks." She specifically cited greater pressure on the Haqqani network and Laskar-e-Taiba as well as U.S. questioning of nuclear proliferator A.Q. Khan.

Peter Juul, Brian Katulis and Caroline Wadhams at the Center for American Progress put this in terms of concrete cooperation. Referring to the "leverage of embarrassment for the Pakistanis over the world's most wanted man hiding under its military's nose," they write that, "The Obama administration should now use this leverage and all the tools at its disposal to tilt the balance in favor of those within Pakistan who favor full U.S.-Pakistan counterterrorism cooperation. The U.S. military raid that killed Osama bin Laden deep inside Pakistani territory is a major embarrassment for Pakistan's government and military... Embarrassment can be a powerful tool for those within the Pakistani state and security establishment who want to confront the terrorist threat and cooperate with the United States to do so. Going forward, the character of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship will be determined by whether or not those in Pakistan who have refused to move against the full range of terrorist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Sipah-e-Sahaba, and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi continue to have the upper hand in internal Pakistani deliberations or whether different voices can emerge. And a clear U.S. policy offering both carrots and sticks potentially provides more impetus for change. The United States should structure its relationship with Pakistan to encourage and bolster those within Pakistan who wish to work with us to defeat our common enemies while isolating those within the Pakistani government and security establishment who continue to deny the reality of the militant threat within their borders and insist on a narrow, transactional relationship." [Jane Harman, 5/17/11. CAP, 5/3/11]

Pakistan will remain an important partner - the two countries need each other. Former U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Wendy Chamberlin explained the complicated relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan: "Well, we're stuck with each other. And we need each other. And it's very important to both of our national objectives that we maintain a good relationship." C. Christine Fair, a South Asia expert at Georgetown University and former RAND Corporation political scientist, explains further, "The simple truth is that the United States has few other options; it must engage Pakistan... Washington needs to step up engagement in order to maximally secure U.S. interests, be it proliferation of nuclear technology or terrorism. Moreover, the only hope for Pakistan's future is continued investment in its people and civilian institutions, albeit with greater clarity of purpose, efficacy of programming and attention to outcomes. Humiliating Pakistan to the point of no return is not a useful strategy. Pakistan too has few choices. Pakistanis are fond of pointing to China as their longtime and reliable friend... Nothing is further from the truth." Fair summarizes: "The United States and Pakistan need each other, albeit for different but intertwined reasons. Both governments will have to resist the urge to undermine the other for domestic considerations. The security of both of populations depends upon it in the near and far term." [Wendy Chamberlin, 5/9/11. C. Christine Fair, 5/11/11]

Speculation and "loose talk" are harmful. Ambassador Chamberlin stated that there has been "a lot of loose talk, a lot of dangerous talk on both sides." Fair explains this concern further: "all accounts and statements attesting to Pakistan's official facilitation of bin Laden's tenure are irresponsibly speculative. The United States had been monitoring the compound since August 2010 and had even erected a CIA house to do so. If there is credible evidence of such facilitation, the U.S. government should say so. In the absence of evidence, conjecture is reckless... What is required right now is coolheaded investigation into what happened, how it happened and with what-if any-official, government of Pakistan facilitation. Baseless speculation will only fuel the inclinations in the U.S. government to cut off Pakistan, and this would be a catastrophic strategic blunder. Washington needs Islamabad's help. Pakistan needs the United States just as much-and China isn't coming to the rescue anytime soon." [Wendy Chamberlin, 5/9/11. C. Christine Fair, 5/11/11]

What We're Reading

The administration has accelerated direct talks with the Taliban, initiated several months ago, that U.S. officials hope will enable President Obama to report progress toward a settlement of the Afghanistan war when he announces troop withdrawals in July.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu laid out his principles for accepting a Palestinian state, showing greater flexibility on territory but still pursuing a far more hawkish approach than any Palestinian leader is likely to accept.

Libya's oil minister has defected and fled to Tunisia, one of the highest profile figures to abandon Col. Moammar Gadaffi's government.

Thirteen bodies have been retrieved from a mass grave in Deraa, the hub of Syria's protest movement.

China has dismissed suggestions it has been a transit point for illegal shipments of ballistic missile material between North Korea and Iran.

The wife of ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who was being held on corruption charges, has been released on bail after handing over assets.

Eurozone countries have signaled a willingness to approve a second bailout for Greece, if Athens commits to more economic reforms.

The UN court for Rwanda handed a 30-year prison sentence to former army chief Augustin Bizimungu for his role in the 1994 genocide in which around 800,000 people were killed.

Of the $330 billion U.S. military leaders claim to have saved by cutting or eliminating weapons projects, nearly 40 percent of that will go toward programs that replicate the old ones, according to a Defense News analysis and several analysts.

CIA chief Leon Panetta has written a private letter to Senator John McCain (R-AZ) that offers the most detailed answer yet to questions about the relationship between torture and Osama Bin Laden's death - and undercuts the claim by former Bush administration officials that torture was key to Bin Laden's killing.

Commentary of the Day

Paul Pillar writes that fighting longer in the expectation of getting better terms from a softened opponent is not likely to be a cost-effective approach during the coming months in Afghanistan, where most of the details of any new political order are hardly the stuff of vital U.S. interests.

Peter Beinart suggests that the converging of thousands of Palestinians on Israel's borders is a sign that they have lost faith in American promises.

Richard Javad Heydarian examines whether the Turkey's experience as a bastion of Islamic moderation, economic dynamism, military might, and foreign policy creativity can serve as a model for the other Islamic countries following the Arab Spring.

Steven Dunaway says the arrest of IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn may have a significant impact on short-term EU/IMF negotiations, particularly talks over Greek debt, but it will not substantively affect the organization's long-term reputation.