Thursday, September 29, 2011

Update: Time is Running Out for US, Pakistan to Reconcile

I said in a posting a few weeks ago that relations between the US and Pakistan would continue to worsen. I wish I could have been wrong in that assessment, but it appears that I was not.

Unfortunately, it is never helpful for politicians to use the media to communicate with one another, because most journalists need controversy to get attention. I'll be the first one to emphasize that retiring JCS chief Admiral Mike Mullen USN did not help US-Pakistani relations when last week he accused Pakistan's intelligence service (ISI) of being deeply linked with the Haqqani militant group that is responsible for recent attacks on the US Embassy in Kabul and US troops in Afghanistan. Mullen should have known better to classify such dialogue, so as not to start trouble the US does not need.

It is clear that US pressure on Pakistan to attack Afghan militants on its soil is very unlikely, largely because most Pakistanis adamantly dislike the US and dislike its policies even more. Hence, Pakistani leaders must walk a fine line in not being perceived as US puppets.

Knowing how upset Pakistan was with the shooting deaths of two Pakistanis at the hands of CIA contractor Ray Davis in March, and in particular with the US Navy SEAL operation on Pakistani soil on May 2, which resulted in the assassination of Osama bin Laden, the Obama Administration should have stopped talking to the press. Period. Somewhere along the line, though, American politicians have begun to think that they have to tell the media everything they're doing and thinking. They don't.

Yet, Prime Minister Yousuf Reza Gilani appeared to be extending an olive branch yesterday when he said, "Pakistan cannot be pressured to do more, but the doors are still open from our side for talks and discussion....We reject these allegations. God willing, we can face these challenges with unity. We are committed to defend our independence and sovereignty." U.S. officials have long talked with the Pakistanis about links between Pakistan and the militant Haqqani network that is behind much of the violence in Afghanistan. Yet, those discussions were mostly held in private, in the hope that Pakistan could gradually be persuaded to sever their purported ties with the group. Nevertheless, Mullen embarked on a risk-rich strategy last week by publicly saying that the Haqqani network was a "veritable arm" of the ISI.

Although they bicker amongst each others as do most political parties around the world, Pakistan's conflicting political parties now seem to be fully unified against US saber-rattling and the Pakistani perception that American "boots" could soon be on the ground. It is believed that these parties could soon issue a collective resolution condemning the US, but it's unclear whether the statement will touch on the allegations of Pakistan support for Afghan militants, a far more sensitive topic because it could set off criticism of the powerful army.

It is believed that the Pakistani Army and the ISI are tolerating or even supporting the Haqqani network largely because they want to cultivate it as an ally in Afghanistan once the Americans withdraw. They see little chance of the top brass attacking the group now, especially when the US is calling for peace talks with other militant factions in Afghanistan. This reasoning has strong support in Pakistan, where most citizens view American forces in Afghanistan as invaders. Yet, there are some circles in Pakistan that see the Taliban as being linked to al-Qaeda, which has also conducted countless operations on Pakistani soil in recent years.

Before either the US or Pakistan says or does something imprudent, that could worsen relations between the two countries, this may be a time for Washington and Islamabad to meet on neutral ground and have their meeting facilitated by someone the two countries both respect so as to reach greater understanding. This would be far better than using the international media to advocate contentious rhetoric. The bottom line is that they both vitally need each other, in the interest of stemming future acts of terrorism.

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