US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Pakistan has only confirmed the deteriorating relations between America and its nominal ally in the war on terror, Pakistan. After Operation Geronimo (to kill Osama Bin Laden) was conducted without Pakistan’s knowledge or assistance, the lack of trust between the two nations has been exposed for the world to see. On her two-day trip to Pakistan, Clinton has had hard words for the Pakistani state: “We should be able to agree that for too long extremists have been able to operate here in Pakistan and from Pakistani soil. No one who targets innocent civilians, whether they be Pakistanis, Afghans, Americans or anyone else should be tolerated or protected.” Them’s fightin’ words.
The US has grown increasingly frustrated with Islamabad’s reluctance to fight the Haqqani network, a Taliban-linked group that has found safe haven in North Waziristan and uses that base to launch attacks against American and Afghan targets. In an unprecedented admission, America’s departing chief of staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, last month called the Haqqani network “a veritable arm of the ISI”, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency. Such a direct indictment of Islamabad’s alleged double game could be seen as some sort of indication of an upcoming recalibration in America’s approach towards Pakistan. Indeed, tough love has marked Clinton’s visit, with the US threatening to send combat troops into North Waziristan unilaterally, if Pakistan could not – or would not – mount a full-scale attack in the region. Lawmakers in the US are also pondering legislation that would tie aid to military operations in North Waziristan.
US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton (L) shakes hand with Pakistani foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar following their joint news conference in Islamabad, Pakistan, on Friday. Photo: Anjum Naveed/AP
For its part, Pakistan feels humiliated at being kept out of the loop on Operation Geronimo, and anti-American sentiment is high amongst the Pakistani public, particularly after the Raymond Davis affair earlier this year, when Davis, a CIA contractor, shot two men who he claimed were hired by the ISI to intimidate him. The Pakistani army’s chief, Ashfaq Kayani, has reportedly cautioned America against taking any unilateral action in North Waziristan. Reports indicate that Pakistan is also perturbed by the US’ refusal to inhibit India’s rehabilitation and reconstruction work in Afghanistan, and is concerned that New Delhi is using US military cover to infiltrate Pakistan’s western border and foment insurgency in Baluchistan.
Despite the escalation in rhetoric, however, the Obama administration does believe it needs Pakistan to meet the 2014 deadline to withdraw from Afghanistan. Pakistan is a crucial conduit for the supplies required by NATO in Afghanistan and the administration does tout the intelligence and military assistance it has received from Islamabad in the past. Pakistan is also, of course, a nuclear-armed nation, and as such the US can hardly want to make it an enemy. There is also the matter of China, which the Obama administration believes would welcome the opportunity to exercise influence over Pakistan to an even greater degree than it already does.
Still, the question remains: Are American and Pakistani interests in the region convergent? At this point, it looks like the answer is increasingly “no”. Despite Pakistan’s reliance on American aid, its main strategic goal in the region is to maintain ties with whoever is in control in Afghanistan when the US withdraws so that India’s influence in Kabul is minimized. The Haqqani network is seen as an important potential ally once foreign troops withdraw, and the Pakistani army is likely reluctant to act against it for this reason. As such, a US withdrawal from an Afghanistan that has not been stabilized would be welcomed by several sections in Pakistan, who would be happy to see the status quo maintained.
US policy towards Pakistan is predicated on two assumptions: one, that Pakistan’s heavy dependence on US aid will lead to it mending its ways; and two, that continued engagement with the Pakistani state will result in a transformation in domestic politics by strengthening the authority of the civilian government. However, as Bruce Riedel outlined in an article in the New York Times, that strategy has not yet worked. In essence, continued US aid to Pakistan has amounted to rewarding bad behavior, but the US feels there is little alternative to billions of dollars to incentivizing Pakistan to fight the extremists in the region.
What does this mean for India? India’s interests in the region are best served by the US staying in Afghanistan for as long as possible. An American withdrawal from an unstable Afghanistan would be counterproductive from the Indian perspective, as that would enable Islamabad to set up and operate terrorist camps in Afghanistan with impunity. If the US succeeds in pressuring Pakistan into tackling the Haqqani network, it can only be good news for India. At the same time, New Delhi must be wary of American pressure to reduce its presence in Afghanistan, if only to appease Islamabad.