U.S.-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue

Qureshi and Clinton - U.S.-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue

What began last week as a strategic dialogue between US and Pakistani civilian and military leaders ended in strategic disconnect. Despite the US State Department’s efforts to make Washington’s relationship with Islamabad less one-dimensional – 13 working groups discussed development issues as wide-ranging as water and women’s empowerment – security issues remained the focus of high-level exchanges.  

This dialogue aimed to smooth tensions heightened by NATO incursions into Pakistan, and Islamabad’s subsequent closure of supply routes to Afghanistan. Such meetings were conceived as an opportunity for the allies to communicate openly and frankly, thereby strengthening the partnership. While there was much plain speaking from both sides last week, the two governments  now find themselves at cross-purposes, less strategically aligned than before on the security front. 

The US last week articulated what it expects from Pakistan when it asks its ally to “do more”: crack down on the Haqqani group in North Waziristan, launch operations against Al Qaeda in Balochistan, allow US Special Forces more flexibility within Pakistan to target militants, and halt terror attacks in both India and Afghanistan.  

Pakistan, too, made demands in its own interest. They reiterated the call for a Pakistani role in negotiations with the Afghan Taliban, with little or no Indian involvement (the US has begun to acquiesce to this status quo, starting with its help in brokering a transit trade agreement between Islamabad and Kabul, but not New Delhi, this summer). The Pakistani delegation also emphasized the need for Washington to balance its bilateral relations with Islamabad and New Delhi, thus securing a promise from President Barack Obama to visit Pakistan in 2011. 

Given these diverging priorities, the question is how the allies will proceed from this point on. 

Pakistan will be hard-pressed to comply with US demands. The army is stretched too thin to launch effective operations in North Waziristan, particularly after the diversion of 70,000 troops for flood relief efforts. The US expectation that the Pakistan Army focus on targeted operations against militants is therefore reasonable. 

But it is unlikely that Pakistan will go after the Haqqani network until it has a better sense of what the ruling order in a post-US-withdrawal Afghanistan may look like. The Pakistani Taliban’s announcement on Sunday that they will seek sanctuary in Afghanistan in the event of a Pakistan Army attack will further complicate matters: the last thing Pakistan wants to do is antagonize militants who will soon be politically rehabilitated. 

Conducting operations in Balochistan – where separatists wage a low-level insurgency – is equally tricky. Pakistan’s civilian government takes credit for promoting Baloch development and righting historic wrongs by its passage in 2009 of legislature that will ensure equitable resource distribution to the province. In its current fragile state, the government will be reluctant to undermine those gains by sanctioning military incursions into the province.   

Similarly, Islamabad cannot risk bearing the brunt of soaring anti-American sentiment among the Pakistani public by agreeing to expanded US Special Forces operations within national borders. Even before the dialogue concluded, Pakistan rejected US requests to deploy more CIA personnel within the country. 

Pakistanis also believe that the US has not provided Islamabad –– or for that matter, Rawalpindi, where the Pakistan Army is headquartered –– enough incentives to take on the risks that increased counterterrorism cooperation entails. The belief that the US takes a “transactional” approach to Pakistan – offering the least amount possible for maximum returns – endures. 

Last week’s much touted $2 billion security assistance package will thus be seen for what it is: a 30 percent increase and extension of the existing Foreign Military Financing program. The Obama administration’s decision, announced during the dialogue, to cut off aid and training to Pakistan Army units accused of conducting extrajudicial killings of terror suspects will also have repercussions. The perception will be that Washington takes away with one hand what it gives with another. Moreover, Pakistan will take note of the US’s repeated rejection of its request for a civilian nuclear technology deal akin to the one inked with India. 

As such, the third installment of the strategic dialogue served only to highlight the differences that endure between Islamabad and Washington. 

Huma Yusuf is a columnist with Pakistan’s Dawn Newspaper, and the Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Photo credit: Getty Images.

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