Restored US military confidence threatens efforts to repair relations with Pakistan

US defense secretary Robert Gates and Pakistan's Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. (File photo)

US defense secretary Robert Gates and Pakistan's Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. (File photo)
A sense of restored American military self-confidence is emerging from the wreckage of US-Pakistani relations in the wake of the killing of Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden by US Navy SEALs.

That self-confidence had seemed to flag during a 10-year manhunt for the killer that cost billions of dollars, and scores of lives of American troops. Contributing to that sagging of self-confidence was the public perception—fed by political and media critics—that the administrations of President Barack Obama and his predecessor George W. Bush had been less than wholly successful in related or simultaneous military campaigns in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.

Revived US confidence may be understandable as the United States seeks a face-saving exit from Afghanistan and finds closure for the 9/11 attacks in Bin Laden’s demise, but bodes less well for US efforts to navigate the minefield of its relations with Pakistan.

Washington demonstrated its newly found assertiveness with a drone strike on Friday that targeted Islamist militants in Pakistan’s North Waziristan region. The strike killed at least eight suspected militants gathered in a house there. It was unclear if the target was selected as a result from information gleaned from computers, hard disks and storage devices captured during Sunday’s raid on Bin Laden’s Pakistani hideout.

Nevertheless, US officials and analysts portray the strike as evidence that the raid restored US military capability and may make it easier for Washington to pressure Islamabad to become unequivocal in its cooperation in the struggle against Islamist militants.

In a first step toward demonstrating its commitment to the struggle, The New York Times reported that US officials are pressing Pakistan to disclose the identities of some of its top intelligence operatives so that Washington can determine whether any of them had contact with Bin Laden or other Al Qaeda operatives or had helped him go underground.

Pakistan’s commitment to the fight against the militants has been called into question by the fact that Bin Laden was in hiding for some six years in a garrison town close to the Pakistani capital that is home to the national military academy as well as a number of senior retired military officials. These residents of Abbottabad include members of Department S of the Directorate of Inter Services Intelligence, which has monitored anti-terrorist activities.

Pakistan has repeatedly denied that it had any knowledge that Bin Laden had gone underground on its territory.

Pakistani Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani warned the US last week that Pakistan would not tolerate another raid like the one on Bin Laden’s hideout. The warning echoes repeated similar statements with regard to the controversial drone attacks. If Friday’s drone strike is any indication, tacit Pakistani endorsement of US military operations against the militants on Pakistani territory may not really be in jeopardy.

While US officials have been pushing their Pakistani counterparts for clarification of how the Al Qaeda leader could have evaded their attention and evidence of their alleged innocence, they have been careful not to deepen Pakistan’s public embarrassment.

US caution stems from the fact that Pakistan is a far more strategic country than Afghanistan and one that is far more troubled. One of the world’s most populous Muslim nations, Pakistan is a nuclear power with Islamist groups that enjoy popular support in various parts of the country and an important player in the rivalry between the United States, India and China for maritime control of the Indian Ocean. Pakistan’s regional role will become ever more important as US troops withdraw from Afghanistan.

Hopes that restored US military credibility and confidence will allow the US to develop closer intelligence and military ties to Pakistan and force it to be more cooperative threaten, however, to jeopardize that caution.

It fails to recognize that underlying tensions in US-Pakistani relations date back to former Pakistani President Zia ul-Haq’s introduction of more Islamic policies and Pakistani support for the US-backed Islamist fighters that forced the Soviet Union to withdraw from Afghanistan. Those tensions stem from fundamentally different definitions of national interest in Washington and Islamabad.

Proponents of the US imposing its will on Islamabad note that the raid on Bin Laden’s hideout will reduce Pakistani concerns that the United States may not be a reliable ally and prove that it is able to stay the course.

“For the people sitting on the fence, it’s like, ‘They (the US) may be really getting good at this, and maybe now is the time to make a decision to get closer,’” former Republican Congressman Pete Hoekstra said at a discussion last week on Pakistan at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

Former President George W. Bush’s deputy Defense secretary Dov Zakheim told a separate gathering that the raid “tells the world we’re not a spent power, we’re not a declining power. There’s a message there about US military power that is terribly important.”

Once the dust settles, it could well emerge that Pakistani officials were not complicit in Bin Laden’s efforts to evade the Americans, but had also not gone out of their way to determine his whereabouts.

That would make attempts to restore a modicum of confidence to US-Pakistani relations somewhat easier as it would avoid the prickly issue of potentially holding senior Pakistani officials accountable.

The elephant in the room remains, however, the fact that Pakistani distrust of US intelligence is in part rooted in the blossoming relationship between the United States and Pakistan’s archenemy India. Pakistani national interests in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the region are defined through the prism of its rivalry with India. That rivalry goes a long way to explain Pakistani nurturing of the Taliban in the 1990s and links between the ISI, its intelligence service, and Islamist militants, including Al Qaeda.

Pakistan distrust has been fuelled by what Islamabad sees as US double standards in its nuclear policy toward South Asia. The United States has never endorsed Pakistan’s development of nuclear weapons and at one point imposed sanctions to persuade Pakistan to halt its development. Yet, Washington has embarked on far-reaching nuclear cooperation—albeit for civilian purposes—with New Delhi, which also has a formidable nuclear arsenal.

US officials and analysts acknowledge the issue, but have no immediate solutions. As a result, Washington will continuously be hampered in its efforts to put relations with Pakistan on a healthy footing and will have no choice but to repeatedly navigate dangerous cliffs.

“What’s the alternative strategy in regards to Pakistan? We can’t overreact; we can’t back off the relationship if you don’t have a new strategy. We’ve got enough relations in the world to worry about right now, rather than adding to the list,” former Representative Pete Hoekstra, Republican of Michigan, said in an effort to dissuade fellow members of Congress seeking to reduce US foreign aid for and cooperation with Pakistan because of its suspected aiding of Bin Laden.

Congressional sanctions imposed on Pakistan would significantly complicate the Obama Administration’s efforts to stabilize relations between the two countries. It would be falling into the trap of assuming that one buys friendship and loyalty with billions of dollars in foreign aid and military assistance that is as much a national security interest of the United States as it is a Pakistani one.

Congress would be mistaken to treat Pakistan as a “client state.” The geopolitics for that are too deadly, and the stakes too high. US credibility and confidence may have been restored but the United States remains dependent on the good will and cooperation of weaker but difficult and irritable countries, with which it shares key strategic interests.


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