Editorial Board

Repair U.S. Ties With Pakistan Before They’re Irreparable

With general elections coming as early as this fall, politicking in Pakistan is heavy these days. So the unanimous passage by Parliament last week of resolutions aimed at limiting military relations with the U.S. deserves the Obama administration’s serious attention.

The decrees don’t tie the hands of President Asif Ali Zardari, but they are a warning of how little public tolerance remains for any further U.S. infringements of Pakistani sovereignty.

While the U.S. has its complaints against Pakistan, mostly regarding its inconsistent pursuit of dangerous militants, the Pakistanis regard the U.S. as prosecuting its security interests without respect for Pakistani rights and lives. U.S. policy makers have long seen the significant U.S. aid Pakistan receives -- $1.6 billion in security-related and $1.4 billion in economic-related support this year -- as the main driver of the bilateral relationship. Parliament’s actions suggest that Pakistani pride and perceived national interest are in fact paramount.

Demand on Drones

In its most serious action, Parliament demanded that the U.S. cease all drone strikes on Pakistani territory. The government had already barred the U.S. from launching drone attacks from Pakistan after American forces mistakenly killed 24 Pakistani soldiers near the Afghan border on Nov. 25. Drone strikes have been pivotal to President Barack Obama’s pursuit of militant jihadists operating out of Pakistan’s northwestern tribal belt. He would be ill-advised to give them up entirely. The Pakistani government and military wouldn’t want that either. Among the targets of these attacks are al-Qaeda and Pakistani Taliban fighters who are also their enemies.

Still, the U.S. should amend its drone policy to assuage Pakistani concerns. A good start would be to entrench the rollback adopted after the November debacle. Since then, the U.S. has reduced drone attacks in Pakistan by about 50 percent, according to figures compiled by the New America Foundation. Given that the U.S. has no plans to stay in the region forever, this seems like a reasonable option and one that would reinforce the original purpose of drones -- not as weapons in a war of attrition but as tools to take out high-value targets.

Beyond the drone ban, Parliament resolved to bar the U.S., and other nations, from conducting any overt or covert military operations there. As a rule, of course, sovereign countries don’t allow foreign security agencies to function on their soil without permission. Yet it happens all the time.

The issue is, what are the consequences of their actions, if made public? Parliament’s vote suggests the repercussions will be increasingly painful. That, again, is an argument for the U.S. to tread less heavily on Pakistan. The costs of breaching Pakistan’s sovereignty last year to kill Osama bin Laden were plainly worth it. But can the same be said for the intelligence being pursued by CIA contractor Raymond Davis, who caused a diplomatic furor after killing two Pakistanis on a street in Lahore? We’ll probably never know, but it’s a question we hope the intelligence community is asking.

Pakistan’s Parliament also demanded an “unconditional apology” from the U.S. for the Nov. 25 border clash. Obama, as well as the secretary of State and senior military officials, have already expressed regret and condolences over the loss of life. And the Pakistani military hasn’t invited sympathy with its refusal to participate in the U.S. investigation, its dismissal of the ensuing report blaming a lack of coordination on both sides, and its paranoid charges that the attack was “deliberate at some level.” Still, a clear apology by the Defense secretary would be appropriate given the loss of life; the U.S. military’s responsibility for relying on incorrect maps and failing to communicate timely, accurate information to its counterpart; and the importance of the larger relationship.

Recognizing Sacrifices

That would signal to the Pakistani people that the U.S. military is committed to repairing its relationship with its Pakistani counterpart and recognizes the sacrifices local forces have made in pursuing shared goals, while correctly keeping any blame at the operational rather than the national level.

The parliamentary resolutions do offer one bright spot: They would allow the U.S. to again use Pakistani roads to resupply U.S. troops in Afghanistan with nonlethal equipment. Since the Nov. 25 incident, the U.S. has had to use expensive alternate routes. Parliament did not tie resumption of the traffic to satisfaction on its other decrees. But it might, in the future, or the government might, in its negotiations with the Obama administration. This is an added reason for the U.S. to repair ties with Pakistan before they become irreparable.

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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