When it seems U.S.-Pakistan relations cannot get worse, they do.
This past week, The New York Times, perhaps coaxed by the White House or CIA, held Pakistan’s army and Inter-Services Intelligence responsible for the killing of a journalist and called for the resignation of the ISI director general.
Over the weekend, it followed with a story of how the United States and Pakistan were engaged in mutual retaliation cutting off or limiting military aid, access and support.
Unfortunately, the stories reflected growing hostility often called the “trust deficit” that is now a chasm larger than America’s Grand Canyon.
For the good of both states, these relations must be put back on track. But can they? Or have the political, strategic, cultural, social and psychological differences become so great that the only outcome will be a cooling off period permitting the scar tissue to heal?
Tragically, both sides understand the critical importance of maintaining close, amicable and good relations yet, that agreed on goal may not be achievable.
For Pakistanis, grievances with and against the United States are well-known. U.S. on-again, off-again relations hurt. Differences on strategic approaches to Afghanistan and, indeed, with Pakistan’s existential threats at home have torn the relationship.
The Raymond Davis affair at the start of this year created serious new wounds. And the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May in Abbottabad almost in sight of Pakistan’s West Point both angered and hugely embarrassed the army and the public.
Meanwhile, drone attacks to hunt down al-Qaida and other enemies inside Pakistan infuriate the public and provide huge propaganda value to anti-American clerics and radicals.
Sadly, the United States has an equally robust list of grievances against Pakistan. Corruption, incompetence and seeming unwillingness on the part of Pakistan to take on mutual enemies are repeated criticisms coming from Washington.
The CIA views ISI as part competitor and perhaps adversary. And senior American leaders resent being lied to over information that they know is accurate, particularly regarding militants, including denials by Pakistan officials on intelligence that Americans see as unimpeachable.
The net result is a building wave of anti-Pakistani feeling particularly in the U.S. Congress where the number of supporters of Pakistan could be as low as single figures.
If one could step back and review in giant steps Pakistan’s history, the difficulties and challenges confronting the nation are put in better and far bleaker perspective. In the 1950s and 1960s, Pakistan’s economy was the model for the region, with impressive annual growth. Pakistan was a largely secular state in which religious radicalism was latent. A series of civilian and military rulers changed that happy picture.
Zulfikar ali Bhutto nationalized the economy, ultimately choking off future prosperity while injecting a larger degree of religious sectarianism. Zia ul Haq pushed the country toward religious radicalism first by supporting the United States against the Soviets in Afghanistan creating and supporting the Taliban and mujahedin movements. And then by radicalizing and expanding the influence of madrassas. Groups such as Lashkar-e-Toiba that were linked to Kashmiri extremists and designed to attack India as an offset to Indian military superiority flourished.
After the United States abandoned Pakistan following the withdrawal of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan in 1989 and then imposed further sanctions to impede Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, Gen. Pervez Musharraf became swept up in the post September 11th engagement in Afghanistan to topple the Taliban.
Unfortunately, Musharraf couldn’t check the excesses and negative conditions that had developed from past leadership actions and the United States ignored Afghanistan to focus on Iraq and the invasion in March 2003.
The result is that the United States has become war weary and drained by a decade of conflict and expense. It is further frustrated by what is seen as an absence of cooperation by Pakistan given the money it has provided and its designation of Pakistan as a major non-NATO ally. That frustration is turning or has turned to anger and resentment.
Pakistan rightly compares the tens of billions it has received over the past decade with the many hundreds of billions the United States has poured into Iraq and Afghanistan and considers itself a poor cousin. It is distrustful of further, long-term U.S. commitment to the region.
And, as the United States draws down in Afghanistan, further attacks against insurgents inside Pakistan are assumed as certain to increase.
And Pakistan’s economy along with 80 million youth with no jobs or future deteriorates.
Pakistan is at a decisive and critical juncture. If its leaders cannot respond afresh to the existential political and economic threats it faces, the result will be tragedy for Pakistan and tragedy for the United States. For better or worse, the choice is Pakistan’s and no one else’s.
Harlan Ullman is Senior Advisor at the Atlantic Council, Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business, and a frequent advisor to NATO. This article was syndicated by UPI.