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Thursday, June 16, 2011

US relations with Pakistan crumbling fast

Pakistani army soldiers listen to U.S. Army Spc. Arafat Khaskheli, an interpreter with Task Force Wright, as he explains a checklist. (File Photo)
Pakistani army soldiers listen to U.S. Army Spc. Arafat Khaskheli, an interpreter with Task Force Wright, as he explains a checklist. (File Photo)
The US-Pakistani relationship is crumbling.

The rapidly deterioration of the relationship in the wake of last month’s killing by US Navy Seals of Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden is fuelled by a clash between chest-thumping Pakistani nationalism and US insensitivity and arrogance.

US drone strikes against Islamist militants in Pakistan’s tribal belt could be the clash’s next victim. As a result, the US has started to move its drones from Pakistan’s Baluchistan to Afghanistan.
Pakistani intelligence, in a display of its heightened nationalism detained five alleged Pakistani CIA informants who spied on Bin Laden in the months before he was killed. The informants were arrested at the very moment that members of the US Congress imposed stricter controls on US military aid to Pakistan.

The arrests are likely to fuel further calls for cuts to Pakistan's $2 billion annual aid package, particularly since Pakistan has yet to detain anyone on suspicion of helping Bin Laden go underground in Pakistan. They come amid continued US suspicion that Pakistani officials helped the Al Qaeda leader go into hiding in their country.

The arrests moreover followed the shutting down of a US military training program for Pakistan’s Frontier Corps paramilitary force, which leads the fight against the Pakistani Taliban in the tribal belt as well as a public dispute over how much aid Pakistan gets from the United States. The military last week disputed US claims of $15 billion over the past decade, asserting that the true figure was $1.4 billion with another $6.2 billion for the civilian government.

In a further indication of the crumbling relationship, Pakistani authorities recently arrested a US citizen on charges of “anti-state activities.” In response, US officials warned that if US personnel were barred from Pakistan, the CIA would find other ways of conducting espionage including drawing on the large Pakistani-American Diaspora.

The CIA informants reportedly took note of details of vehicles visiting Bin Laden’s house in Abbottabad, a military garrison town near Islamabad. They also ran a safe house from which the CIA monitored the Al Qaeda leader’s mansion.

A Pakistani military spokesman denied a New York Times report that a serving army major was among those detained.

Pakistan officials attempted to downplay the arrests as normal operating procedures. They said they were part of an investigation of the unilateral US raid that killed Bin Laden of which Pakistan was not informed in advance.

Nonetheless, some Pakistani officials insist that Pakistan has the right to crack down on its soldiers and civilians working for foreign intelligence organizations. They note that no country would tolerate such activity.

The Pakistani military has sought since the killing of Bin Laden to repair its tarnished image, which would have received another body blow if indeed a Pakistani military officer were among those arrested.

The raid together with the drone attacks is widely viewed in Pakistan as a display of US arrogance and a violation of Pakistani sovereignty and has prompted Pakistani officials to respond to US criticism and action with a display of hyper-nationalism. Pakistani sensitivities are further fed by repeated US warnings that Pakistani failure to demonstrate its commitment to the fight against Pakistani militants could have dire consequences.

The arrest of the alleged CIA operatives came a week after a visit to Pakistan by outgoing CIA director Leon E. Panetta who in meetings with Pakistani army chief General Ashfaq Kayani and the head of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), the country’s controversial intelligence service, General Shuja Pasha, warned of consequences if Pakistan were to curtail CIA operations in the country.

The warning stemmed from a conclusion by US officials that their Pakistani counterparts had betrayed their effort to repair relations by sharing with them the location of a bomb factory belonging to the network of Sirajuddin Haqqani, which has close ties to Al Qaeda.

Mr. Panetta (who is slated to be the next US secretary of defense) is reported to have presented video footage showing militants fleeing the factory in Waziristan shortly after the CIA had informed the Pakistani military of its location. The video prompted members of Congress to withhold disbursement for the bulk of $1.1 billion of aid to Pakistan so that it can shore up its counter-terrorism capabilities until President Barack Obama has introduced tougher safeguards on its expenditure.

With Congressional posturing, over-inflated US self-confidence in the wake of Mr. Bin Laden’s death and Pakistanis wearing their nationalism on their sleeves, US relations with Pakistan seem increasingly doomed.

US treatment of Pakistan as a client state is risky and likely to backfire. The US is increasingly dependent on the good will and cooperation of weaker but difficult and irritable countries like Pakistan with which it shares key strategic interests.

The US warnings and Congressional measures only reinforce Pakistani perceptions that the US is at best a good weather friend.

The resulting uncertainty has already prompted Pakistan to reduce its dependence on the US by expanding its already blossoming relationship with China.

The Pakistani message is that as the United States prepares to withdraw its first troops from Afghanistan, it could find that it needs Pakistan more than Pakistan needs it.

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