George Bernard Shaw quipped that England and America were two like nations divided by a common language.  Today, Pakistan and America are divided by far more than language. One of the most divisive dangers beyond al Qaeda and extremism is the looming trust deficit between Pakistan and America. 

Bridging this gap is crucial to defeating the existential economic and security threats to Pakistan and to safeguarding our interests in the process.

The reasons for this trust deficit between Pakistan and America are reflected in the prevalent views of each other. In general, the United States believes that the Islamabad government is weak or, as Special Envoy to the region Richard Holbrooke puts it, is “fragile.”  The Pakistani Army is perceived as uncertain over whether the true existential threat comes from the insurgency and extremism in the northwest or from the east and India, Pakistan’s traditional nemesis, producing an ambivalence that makes it impossible to stem the free flow of arms and terrorists between Pakistan and Afghanistan.  And Pakistan’s Interservices Intelligence (ISI) is largely seen as an organization uncontrolled and uncontrollable by civilian political leadership with its own agenda that is not always in the best interests of the nation or of Pakistan’s allies.

In the latest political confrontation in Pakistan between PPP co-chairman and President Asif Zardari and PML-N opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, the U.S. pressured Zardari to restore the chief justice ostensibly to prevent the nationwide protest from turning violent. But, with this tilt, the U.S. made Nawaz politically more co-equal with the duly elected president, weakening further what it maintains is already a fragile government.  Nawaz holds no office; if the court rules against him, he will not be allowed to hold office. And his party is strong in only one of Pakistan’s four provinces.  Nawaz is also the same fellow who attempted to impose Sharia law as prime minister a decade ago and who, through his wife, proposed making the notorious proliferator of nuclear technology A.Q. Khan Pakistan’s president.

Pakistanis have a lot to worry about on this side.  The proposed Biden-now Kerry-Lugar bill calling for an additional $7.5 billion in aid for Pakistan over the next five years will not come close to meeting Pakistan’s economic needs. Nor is there certainty as to when or if the bill will be approved. Possible restrictions and caveats on aid could prove unacceptable to the Pakistani public and government.  And U.S. tariffs on Pakistani textiles, which if lifted or reduced to the levels granted to other states such as France would make a huge contribution to economic development, remain an impediment and source of anger.

Pakistanis also worry about America’s staying power in the region pointing out the unhappy and inconsistent history of US involvement. That America is by no means at one in identifying the primary threats it faces raises other doubts about long-term commitment.  If the U.S. determines that the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are harbingers of counter-insurgencies and irregular warfare likely to persist for decades, Pakistan can count on help. But if the rise of potential “peer competitors” such as a hostile Russia or China leads to U.S. forces designed to deter or fight a big conventional war, will Pakistan be left in the cold again?

Finally, as Americans worry about ISI, CIA Predator strikes continue to antagonize and alienate the Pakistani public. That both former President Pervez Musharraf and current President Zardari tolerated or turned a blind eye to these attacks sparked greater public animosity against the leadership.  Hence, from both Pakistani and American perspectives, the trust deficit is moving in the wrong direction.

Pakistan is a hugely complex and complicated society.  Despite his personal standing in the polls, Zardari’s government is politically stronger than Americans appreciate. The PPP controls both Parliament and the presidency and that will not change except through the ballot box. For the moment, however, that government is dysfunctional and supporting Nawaz in the chief justice brouhaha did not help. But dysfunctionality of government is not unique to Pakistan.  The first year of the Clinton administration was chaotic, made more so by the health care debacle.  And, many argue that the Bush administration never overcame its stumbles prior to September 11th.

Presidents Zardari and Obama recognize the nature of the existential threat to Pakistan, the region and to the United States.  Both are deeply committed to defeating those threats.  However, in order to succeed, a most difficult hurdle to overcome is the huge deficit in mutual trust.

Hope is never a strategy.  But one hopes that the forthcoming strategic review of Afghanistan and Pakistan will be based on this recognition and its recommendations follow accordingly.  If it is not, the outcome could prove disastrous and even catastrophic for Pakistan, the region and us.

Harlan Ullman is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Advisors Group and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the National Defense University.