U.S. Regards Maintaining ‘Frustrating’ Pakistan Ties as Vital

U.S. Regards Maintaining Frustrating Pakistan Ties Vital
Pakistani protesters hold up a burning U.S. flag during a demonstration against the visit of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Lahore. Photographer: Banaras Khan/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. is taking a more demanding approach to Pakistan since Osama bin Laden’s May 2 death, pressing for increased counterterrorism cooperation just as the Pakistani public and the nation’s powerful officer corps are calling for less.

The tension is reflected in a Pew Research Center poll published June 21 that shows 69 percent of Pakistanis see the U.S. as “more of an enemy” than a partner -- even after $20 billion in aid over the past decade -- and in U.S. threats to cut assistance unless Pakistan steps up its terrorism fight.

Even so, Pakistan’s need for economic aid, status as a nuclear power, vulnerability to militants and interests in Afghanistan provide incentives for both nations to work through current disputes.

“This is a long-term, frustrating, frankly sometimes very outraging kind of experience,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said about dealing with Pakistan in an appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations committee yesterday. “And yet, I don’t see any alternative, if you look at vital American national interests.”

Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee yesterday that “the entire chain of command in the United States through the president thinks it’s important that we sustain this relationship even through its most difficult times.”

At the heart of U.S.-Pakistani tension is how much influence Pakistan will wield over Afghanistan as the U.S. reduces its role there, beginning with a withdrawal of 33,000 soldiers by September 2012.

Close Bases

The U.S. has demanded since at least 2004 that Pakistan close bases in its western borderlands from which Taliban guerrillas attack American and Afghan government troops. Since the 1980s, Pakistan’s army covertly has supported the Taliban and allied guerrilla groups as a way to keep Afghanistan from allying with Pakistan’s arch-foe, India, and prevent it from pursuing historic claims to rule parts of what is now Pakistan.

When asked by a lawmaker about Pakistan’s role, Mullen replied that “there’s great risk in the strategy tied to Pakistan. There has been from the beginning.”

Mullen and Clinton were the highest level administration officials to visit Pakistan after the U.S. commando raid that killed bin Laden, an operation the U.S. conducted without informing Pakistani leaders. CIA chief Leon Panetta made an unannounced visit there the day after his June 9 Senate confirmation hearing to become defense secretary.

Task Force

Administration officials point to signs in the past few weeks that Pakistani leaders also want to maintain the relationship, including a recent accord establishing a joint counterterrorism task force and the killing or capture of “several very key extremists,” Clinton said.

In Pakistan, the question of whether to sustain the relationship is up for debate, said Seth Jones, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation.

There is “an internal struggle within Pakistan’s key national security agencies about the state of the relationship, whether it’s worthwhile, whether it should continue, and that will be an ongoing process,” said Jones, who has served as a military adviser in the region.

The raid on bin Laden’s compound has been denounced by many Pakistanis as a breach of sovereignty. In a May meeting, the army’s top generals pushed General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani to explain why Pakistan supports the U.S.

Second Term

While Pakistan’s army remains highly disciplined, Kayani’s authority may face greater challenges from the officer corps as he serves an unprecedented second term as commander, said Brian Cloughley, a historian of the Pakistan military. An increasing number of military officers “have begun to see this war as America’s war,” said Javed Hussain, a retired Pakistani army brigadier, in a June 16 phone interview.

The resistance from the officer corps may undermine U.S. calls for Pakistani forces to attack the Jalaluddin Haqqani guerrilla group, one of the Taliban factions most closely aligned to Pakistan’s military. The Pakistan army’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, or ISI, “has a longstanding relationship with the Haqqani network,” Mullen said in an April 20 visit to Pakistan. “I’m extremely concerned in particular about that aspect.”

Drone Attacks

Pakistan shut down a U.S. Special Forces training program and is planning to end the CIA’s use of an airbase in southwest Pakistan used for launching drone flights, according to the Washington Post. The army’s dozen top generals, who form its most powerful decision-making council, issued a statement June 9 saying U.S. drone strikes against militants “are not acceptable under any circumstances. There is no room for ambiguity in this regard.”

The CIA continues to operate armed drones from Afghanistan to strike militants in the border region of Pakistan. If the missile strikes don’t stop, a parliamentary resolution recommended closing NATO supply routes that, according to the U.S. military’s Transportation Command, carry half of all war materiel to Afghanistan.

At the same time, it is getting difficult for President Barack Obama’s administration to defend its ties with Pakistan, which has received economic and military assistance totaling almost $21 billion since 2002. The House Appropriations Committee on June 14 approved a defense spending bill that would withhold 75 percent of the $1.1 billion in this year’s aid to Pakistan until the Obama administration tells Congress how it would spend the money.

Pakistani Toll

While the Pakistan government says it has lost 3,500 security personnel and 35,000 civilians in its war against Islamic militants since 2006, Pakistani civilians and military officers “hear mostly criticism from around the world that they aren’t doing enough,” and they feel the army’s efforts are being ignored, said Cloughley, an Australian military analyst of South Asia.

At yesterday’s hearing, Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, told Clinton “I don’t think there’s an American who believes” that Pakistan’s leaders weren’t aware of bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad, a garrison town 30 miles (50 kilometers) from the capital, Islamabad. Clinton replied that the administration is convinced after thoroughly reviewing intelligence that no top Pakistani leader knew of bin Laden’s hideout.

Blunt Talk

“We do not in any way rule out or absolve those who are at lower levels who may very well have been enablers and protectors,” Clinton added.

Lisa Curtis of the Heritage Foundation, a Washington policy group, said “U.S. officials are more willing to call a spade a spade when Pakistan’s cooperation is not satisfactory.”

U.S. lawmakers were outraged by Pakistan’s post-raid detention of dozens of civilians suspected of helping either bin Laden or the CIA. Suspicions of official Pakistani complicity were further fueled when militants cleared out of two bomb-making compounds after U.S. officials shared intelligence about their location.

The U.S. is signaling to Pakistani leaders that military aid depends on their level of cooperation. “We are not prepared to continue providing that at the pace we were providing it unless and until we see certain steps taken,” Clinton said.

Clinton did praise an improvement in Pakistani counterterrorism efforts since the raid and analysts point to some conciliatory gestures by Pakistan.

Islamic Militants

Pakistan’s army said this week it arrested a brigadier general and was questioning four army majors for alleged connections to Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamic militant group. Pakistan has resumed issuing visas for CIA officers after holding them back after an agency contractor, Raymond Davis, killed two men in February, according to the Associated Press.

“When it comes to Pakistan, there is a ledger,” said Clinton. “On one side of the ledger are a lot of actions that we really disapprove of and find inimicable to our values and even our interests, and then on the other side of the ledger there are actions that are very much in line with what we are seeking and want. So we’re constantly balancing and weighing that.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE