June 21, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: US-Pakistan Relationship: Characterized by Fault on Both Sides


As of late June 2012, just as the United States and NATO are trying to devise a long-term strategy to stabilize Afghanistan once most International Security Assistance Force troops have departed by the end of 2014, the downward spiral in U.S.-Pakistan relations continues to cast even greater doubt over these plans. Recent reports of the U.S. decision to temporarily withdraw from talks with Pakistan regarding the re-opening of key supply routes to NATO troops is yet another reminder that highlights what has become a rocky and dysfunctional relationship between the two countries.


A Series of Events Undermine U.S.-Pakistan Relations

One can point to January 2011 as the beginning of a series of events that systematically undermined already strained U.S.-Pakistan affairs. At that time, Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor, shot and killed two Pakistanis at a crowded junction in Lahore. This sparked widespread protest in Pakistan and a heated argument between Washington and Islamabad over whether Raymond was entitled to diplomatic immunity. (He was ultimately released and flown back home before this issue was formally settled.)

This incident was followed in May 2011 by the U.S. Navy SEAL's covert raid in Abbottabad, a military town outside Islamabad, that killed Osama bin Laden. Pakistan was humiliated by this episode, which it saw as a direct violation of its sovereignty. Pakistan has pressed this same argument concerning the recurring strikes by American drones against suspected extremists in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The U.S., on the other hand, felt betrayed by its erstwhile ally, who appeared to have been providing refuge to America's signature terrorist adversary. Soon thereafter, in July 2011, the U.S. threatened to withhold US $800 million in military aid unless Pakistan boosted its counterterrorism cooperation.

Another controversial moment served as the brink of mounting tensions, when, in September 2011, Admiral Mike Mullen, then chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, accused Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Agency of supporting attacks in Afghanistan. He was specifically referring to the 13 September 2011 attacks against the U.S. Embassy in Kabul; the 10 September 2011 truck bomb targeting a combat outpost in Wardak province that killed five Afghans and injured 96, including 77 U.S. soldiers; and the 28 June 2011 attack against the Inter-Continental Hotel in Kabul.

However, when NATO helicopters destroyed two Pakistani military outposts on the Afghan border on 26 November 2011, killing 24 Pakistani soldiers with 13 more injured, it became the final straw in the troubled U.S.-Pakistan relationship. Hina Rabbani Khar, Pakistan's foreign minister, reportedly telephoned Hillary Clinton, the U.S. Secretary of State, to tell her that the soldiers' deaths had negated all progress in improving the two countries' damaged alliance and that the attack had sparked "rage" within Pakistan.

Pakistan immediately took retaliatory steps and ordered the U.S. to vacate Shamsi Air Base in Balochistan province that was believed to be the staging post for U.S. drones operating in northwest Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan. More importantly, Pakistan closed its borders and refused to let U.S. and NATO military goods transit through to Afghanistan. Since the start of the war in Afghanistan, most of NATO's supplies have used an overland route that starts at the Pakistani port of Karachi. Pakistan had given free passage to supplies for the coalition soldiers since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. More recently, a token charge of US$250 per truck was imposed. But following the closure of borders, not only is Pakistan insisting that the U.S. apologize for the attack on Pakistani military troops, but has also demanded a transit tax of over US$5,000 on each cargo vehicle, a much higher price for the approximately 600 trucks a day that would pass through the country.

When Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari announced at the last minute that he would attend NATO's summit in Chicago, it seemed as if a rapprochement on the supply routes was imminent. But the Chicago summit on 20-21 May ended without an agreement. In the meantime, NATO  has been using an alternative and more expensive transit route through the north of Afghanistan that seems to be working well for now. (See The Soufan Group's 13 April IntelBrief for additional details on that network.)

Aside from the apology and the transit tax, Pakistan had wanted America to clear its dues under the Coalition Support Funds program, a scheme that is supposed to reimburse Pakistan for money spent guarding its western frontier with Afghanistan. That money is expected to be paid at some point, though presumably it will be much less than the US$2 billion that Pakistan believes it is owed.

The U.S.-Pakistan disputes are continuing to have an impact on the bigger issues facing the two countries, including the outlook for Afghanistan post-2014. Despite the exasperation felt by many in Washington about Pakistan, analysts believe the U.S. will need Pakistani assistance to stabilize Afghanistan when the troops leave and to broker some form of political accommodation with the Afghan Taliban. In the long run, reconciliation among the warring factions in Afghanistan, the government, the Taliban, and others would yield tangible results for the coalition and concrete steps toward increased stability. This is why it is vital to have Afghanistan's neighbors, in particular Pakistan, agree to honor its sovereignty and integrity.


The Troubled Relationship Survives Out of Necessity

NATO countries are also keen for the route through Pakistan to reopen as they start to construct definitive plans for bringing their troops and equipment out of Afghanistan. Easing the logistical burden of withdrawing vast quantities of material once combat operations end will soon become as important as the original delivery of the supplies. Once Pakistan gets the apology it desires, it should be willing to allow NATO supplies back through its territory. However, it will no longer provide free passage and a transit tax sum now being haggled over between the two sides would have to be agreed upon beforehand. Last month, Foreign Minister Khar reportedly said the time was right to reopen the route. While Islamabad maintained that its initial decision had been correct, there was also recognition that it could no longer afford to continue alienating the other countries involved in the Afghanistan conflict.

Pakistan would also want to see its relationship with the U.S. repaired, but it is hard for the two sides to agree on the right path to that end. The difficulty is that domestic politics hems in both sides, with a parliamentary election likely in Pakistan not long before America's presidential election in November 2012. Describing the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, Leon Panetta, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, said it was a complicated relationship, "oftentimes frustrating, oftentimes difficult," but the United States cannot simply walk away. America needs Pakistan to bring the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network together for talks, to conduct (and support) more counterterrorism operations, and to keep its substantial — and often overlooked — nuclear arsenal safe. There can be no successful, or even partially successful, conclusion to the mission in Afghanistan without Pakistan's irreplaceable support.

On the other hand, Pakistan's army has no other serious alternative to American aid. Moreover, it is better for Pakistan to be involved if the political process in Afghanistan is moving forward than to linger on the sidelines. Any deal that ensures the emergence of a stable government in Kabul would ultimately suit Pakistan's interest more than the prospect of renewed chaos in Afghanistan, even if the start of a substantive peace process may still be a long way off. The fact that the broad relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan has survived other severe tests in the past suggests that it will get over these as well.



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