Thursday, June 09, 2011

U.S.-Pakistan: Tensions Persist in Pakistan-U.S. Relations

By Shastri Ramachandaran*

Courtesy IDN-InDepth NewsReport

NEW DELHI (IDN) - The Osama factor continues to cast a long dark shadow over relations between the United States and Pakistan. Though the two nations just announced plans to strengthen security ties, this has done little to overcome existing tensions.

Following the discovery and killing of Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011 in Abbotabad, close to the heart of Pakistani military power, many in Washington blamed the Pakistani security establishment for its previous failure to unearth the Al Qaeda leader.

But the U.S. has caused its own share of problems in Pakistan. I made an eight-day visit to Pakistan recently, along with other Indian journalists, where a number of people, mostly senior army officers but also diplomats, strategic affairs experts and civilian officials held forth on Pakistan's internal and external problems.

More often than not, Pakistan's internal crises and external challenges are intertwined, such as terrorist groups within the country impacting the situation in Afghanistan and that, in turn, vitiating ties with the U.S.

U.S. intrusions into Pakistan and violations of its territorial integrity, in the form of unmanned drone strikes in Pakistan's northwest to kill terrorists have been routine. These unilateral drone attacks, performed without Pakistan's consent or cooperation, have killed more civilians than militants, causing widespread public outrage.

As a result, protests and demonstrations against U.S. military actions have reached every level from villages to Pakistan's parliament.

This tide of anti-U.S. sentiments was straining U.S.-Pakistan relations.

In the course of a briefing in Rawalpindi on how the army had, by their account, crushed the Pakistan Taliban terrorists in the Swat Valley in 2009, Pakistan's chief military spokesman admitted that public anger against U.S. drones could get out of hand. "But it is for the political leadership to take a decision," said Major-General Athar Abbas, director-general of Inter-Services Public Relations.

Former foreign secretary Riaz Hussain Khokhar, also once ambassador to China and high commissioner to India, was unsparing in his criticism.

"There is no legal basis for the drone attacks, they are against international law. It is a most merciless manner of attacking another country, and doesn't serve any useful purpose," he told me in Islamabad.

Khokhar said that U.S.-Pakistan relations were never free of problems. "Now it is troubled, marked by suspicion and mistrust. The two sides have to sort it out – that's not easy, but not impossible either," he observed.

Another former ambassador to the U.S. and UK, Maleeha Lodhi, argues in her introduction to the book Pakistan: Beyond the 'Crisis State' that Pakistan is a "client state" of the U.S. As both a high-level diplomat and former editor of prominent Pakistani newspapers, Lodhi speaks with an insider's authority.

But Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, also a former ambassador to the U.S. and China, argued that the U.S. and Pakistan are indispensable for each other "because of Afghanistan, 9/11 and 11/26 (the terrorist attack on Mumbai), but also much else."

In his view, there is a "contingent relationship" between the U.S. and Pakistan rather than a strategic one, although the two countries have common strategic objectives. Qazi, now director-general of the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad, described contingent relationship as being "from time to time and issue to issue."

The intensity of discussion, and the public anger at both terrorist attacks and U.S. overreach, shows one thing: Despite internal conflicts and external intrusions, Pakistan's civil society continues to be as vibrant and outspoken as ever.

Perhaps the U.S. should learn to respect this spirit of discussion and argument, and the diverse views of the Pakistani people, rather than treating their ally as little more than a tool to be used against terrorism.

*This article was first carried by The writer, who recently travelled to Pakistan at the invitation of the Government of Pakistan, is a former Editor of Sunday Mail and has worked with leading newspapers in India and abroad. He was Senior Editor and Writer with China Daily and Global Times in Beijing. For nearly 20 years before that he was a senior editor with The Times of India and The Tribune. Besides commentaries on foreign affairs and politics, he has written books, monographs, reports and papers. He is co-editor of the book State of Nepal.