Diplomatic efforts have helped in the past week to defuse the latest crisis to rock Pakistan-US relations. Although the immediate tensions have dissipated these developments have reaffirmed the tenuous quality of the relationship.

This was the third crisis in a rollercoaster year which started with the protracted row over the Raymond Davis affair and was followed by the bigger blow to relations delivered by the May 2 covert US raid in violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty.

Each crisis has inflicted more damage, weakened the relationship and added another layer of complication to already fraught ties. Once described as strategic, relations seemed to have slipped from being transactional to coercive.

But in every crisis both sides have tried to avoid an open rupture in recognition of their mutual need. It was no different this time. High-level dialogue quickly resumed to try to ‘reset’ relations by diplomatic endeavours that nonetheless remain inconclusive.

In the latest crisis the pendulum swung in a risky direction. When America’s top military official, Admiral Mike Mullen publicly accused Pakistan of complicity in the Haqqani network’s September 13 attack on the US Embassy in Kabul this set off a diplomatic firestorm. His remarks outraged Pakistani officials and provoked public anger. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta pronounced that Washington would do whatever it takes to stop such attacks. All this fuelled concerns in Pakistan that the US was contemplating some kind of unilateral military incursion into Pakistani territory.

This prompted a sharp response from Rawalpindi and Islamabad. It was conveyed clearly to Washington that such action would be unacceptable and lead to grave and irreversible consequences for the relationship.

Consequently Washington distanced itself from Mullen’s assertions and rolled back the harsh rhetoric against Pakistan. Remarks by President Barack Obama, following those by White House and State Department spokesmen, declined to endorse the Mullen formulation. Other officials stressed the importance of ties with Pakistan in order to walk back from the verbal confrontation. But they insisted that the ‘Haqqani problem’ had to be addressed.


The crisis seemed to ease but leaving problems unresolved. At the heart of this crisis lay the divergence between the two countries over the appropriate strategy for Afghanistan – the US intent on waging more war even as it declared its desire to move towards a negotiated peace and Pakistan wanting a de-escalation of kinetic activity to pave the way for peace making with all combatant groups engaged in the fighting.

The trigger for the verbal assaults on Pakistan by American officials came from a string of Taliban attacks last month including on a US base near Kabul on September 10. These embarrassed the US military and challenged its carefully constructed narrative of progress in the war. It gave a more pronounced edge to the longstanding US demand for Pakistan to act against “safe havens” from where these attacks were claimed to have come.

For years Pakistani and American perspectives have clashed on this. The US has long characterised Taliban sanctuaries as the principal reason for Nato’s inability to quell the insurgency. Pakistan has always insisted that the cause and solution for the insurgency lies in Afghanistan. Sanctuaries are a consequence not the cause of the insurgency. These clashing perspectives were evident during the latest crisis.

The audacious attacks on Kabul also provided an opportunity to elements in the American administration, sceptical of talks with insurgents, to push back on Obama’s support for Afghan reconciliation and raise doubts about the Taliban’s interest in peace. They tried as well to use the developments to question and undercut the centrality of Pakistan’s role as a peace broker in the reconciliation process. The strident criticism of Pakistan and the ISI seemed to have a purpose beyond mounting pressure.

The Obama administration acknowledges that peace cannot come to Afghanistan without a political settlement. But it has remained intent on following an approach of escalating the fighting yet wanting to reach out to the Taliban. This has produced two parallel policies, one focused on reconciliation and the other on ramping up the war effort.

This fight-and-talk strategy has injected strains into relations with Pakistan by making conflicting demands: for Islamabad to help reconcile with Taliban leaders and to eliminate them at the same time.

Intensification of drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas and night raids in Afghanistan are the most evident – and controversial – aspects of the US military strategy still centred on kinetic actions. The American military’s belief that the will of the Taliban has to be broken before their leaders are forced into talks underpins this escalation once described by General David Petraeus as “whacking the Taliban to the negotiating table”.

Pakistan regards the pursuit of these incompatible objectives as dysfunctional and counter productive to the goal of initiating serious negotiations. Aggressive military actions are seen as undercutting not advancing the prospect of talks. That is why army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has repeatedly stressed that having committed itself to finding a negotiated solution Washington’s military strategy should serve this political objective and not be the other way around.

The conditions for progress in reconciliation involve in the first instance a mutual reduction in violence to offer space for negotiations. This also opens up a way to deal with the ‘Haqqani problem’ and other groups by ‘including’ them in talks and not ‘excluding’ them by military action. The latter would encourage ‘spoilers’ intent on seeking to wreck peace talks and recalcitrant splinter groups, none of which will be conducive for a stable solution.

America expects Pakistan to pursue a kill-capture-or-reconcile approach by simultaneously facilitating contacts with Taliban leaders, launching efforts to target them, and also going after those who do not reconcile. Pakistan has been making the case for Washington to carefully think how to ‘sequence’ efforts aimed at a political settlement rather than follow a contradictory strategy.

Pakistan’s top military officials regard the calibrated reduction of hostilities and other confidence building measures as necessary accompaniment – and incentive – for serious talks. Otherwise violence will continue from both sides in an escalatory cycle. A strategy predicated on the premise that one side holds fire while the other carries on shooting and bombing will not work.

Instead Islamabad has asked Washington to clarify four aspects of the envisaged peace process: who to talk to, tasks to be accomplished, sequencing of the process and timelines for this. Once high-level dialogue resumes between the two countries forging a consensus on these four points will determine whether a common operational plan can be evolved to advance the reconciliation track.

What will also affect progress in this regard is whether differences are resolved within the Obama administration between those who want to accelerate reconciliation and others who don’t fully support this. This internal rift has contributed to the recent turbulence in ties with Pakistan. The American military and intelligence establishment which has been driving a tougher line on Pakistan still appears to resist the notion of talking to the Taliban. Many among them equate reconciliation with defeat. But the White House and State Department seem keen on accomplishing progress on reconciliation ahead of a landmark Nato Summit in Chicago in spring 2012.

Because President Obama has declined to vigorously engage or throw his weight behind his own policy, proponents of different views have managed to run with their version of policy. Unless these policy tensions are resolved, they will continue to spill into and destabilise relations with Pakistan, as the latest crisis demonstrated.

This makes the task of normalising Pakistan-US relations even more challenging. But stable ties are vital for both countries. In the near term the fate of this troubled relationship hinges on being able to align their interests and chart out a specific path to secure the common goal of an Afghan peace settlement and square this with the 2014 milestone for Nato to complete its combat mission. The surge in tensions between Kabul and Islamabad will also have to be purposely addressed. Ultimately peace has to be forged and sustained by the Afghans themselves.

Dr. Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani Ambassador to the United States and special adviser to the Jang Group/GEO. This article originally appeared in The News International.