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Where Next for US-Pakistan Ties Jolted by bin Laden killing?

May 25 , 2011
  • Zhao Gancheng

    Senior Fellow, Shanghai Institutes for Int'l Studies

Senator John Kerry, Chairman of the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations, recently completed a visit to Islamabad for talks with Pakistani leaders in the wake of the fatal raid on Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, a town near the capital. There has been much debate about where U.S.-Pakistan ties are headed after the death of bin Laden because political sniping between the two countries hasn’t stopped since. So what messages might Senator Kerry have carried to Islamabad? Some analysts have tried to link Kerry’s visit to American criticism of Pakistan’s alleged support network for bin Laden and on this basis some congressmen have threatened to cut off aid to Pakistan. On the Pakistani side, the prevailing philosophy holds that sovereignty is much more important than aid. U.S.-Pakistan ties, therefore, seem to be at the crossroads.

Kerry’s visit proves that there are additional important things for the bilateral relationship to do. In retrospect, the shift of U.S. strategy after the 9/11 terrorist attacks suddenly and significantly upgraded the strategic importance of South Asia, including Pakistan. The U.S. has reiterated since then the necessity of a strategic partnership with Pakistan. In the meantime, however, senior officials never forget mentioning the possibly ugly consequences if the latter is not interested in such a partnership. As the memoir of former Pakistani President Musharaff said, the then U.S. Undersecretary of State, Richard Armitage, once threatened to bomb Pakistan back to the stone age if it did not cooperate with the U.S. in the war on terror. This was not new policy but an old one using the carrot and stick approach, a ploy familiar to many. Those with radical views about international relations might have turned down the U.S. imperialist approach on the basis of nationalistic sentiments. But people who have real command of foreign policy are usually not very radical. Again, according to General Musharaff, he took the threat seriously and yet pursued national interest as his policy orientation. Pakistan agreed to cooperate with the U.S., meaning it would strike Al Qaida and the Taliban as the U.S. did. However, seeing things from another more moderate perspective, one may argue that cooperation with the U.S. could have provided Pakistan with another opportunity, because the nation had fallen into a state of constant crises after the Kagil conflict in 1999. If the U.S. adopted Pakistan as a strategic partner, other countries that regard Pakistan as an enemy might have had to rethink their relevant policies.
Strategically mutual benefits are the key element to understanding U.S.-Pakistan ties, even though the size and value of the benefits remains debatable. For instance, the U.S. has fought the Afghan war for 10 years, costing thousands of casualties and a trillion dollar expenditure, in collaboration with almost all U.S. allies. But the outcome seems to be not what the U.S. expected. The U.S. thus constantly complains about the insufficient efforts of Pakistan. Meanwhile, the Pakistani public are quite fed up with both their own government’s cooperation with the U.S. and America’s inappropriate behavior threatening to use economic aid as a means to pressure Pakistan. In between, the Pakistani government, whether military or civilian, has to be very careful despite being heavily criticized. To make matters worse, there has been no easing of violence in the nation with huge casualties over the years.

The death of bin Laden puts the Pakistani government and military back on edge.  The American accusations are actually not new and to the Pakistani government they are always there, threatening some sort of U.S. intent. However in the media focus since the bin Laden raid, the Pakistani government has been made out this time to be particularly guilty. In fact, this is just part of the American strategy, and as the Western saying goes, it kills two birds with one stone. By accusing Pakistan, the U.S. can successfully shift the international focus away from the debate over whether the operation was legitimate or legal. In the meantime, the criticism may play a role in urging Pakistan to work better in supporting future U.S. military deployments with its allies in Afghanistan. The U.S. is certain that any Afghanistan strategy would require Pakistani cooperation. That might be the genuine topic that Mr. Kerry wanted to discuss in Islamabad and also underscore the purpose of possible visits by Secretary of State Clinton.

Does killing bin Laden change the nature of mutual benefits from U.S.-Pakistan cooperation? The answer is no. Senator Kerry also said that his visit was aimed at repairing the bilateral relationship, which means that the U.S. still values the role Pakistan has played in the anti-terror campaign. Osama bin Laden was a strong symbol for international terrorist organizations, but nothing more than a symbol.  Now that the symbol is terminated, U.S. President Obama can be the bearer of good news to the American public. But that does not solve the issue of what the hundred thousand American troops in Afghanistan are going to do now. That is the real issue President Obama has to work out. The president set July 1 as the date to start the withdrawal. With the date looming and the next presidential election already underway, Obama’s political rivals won’t forget his promise that all American troops will finally leave Afghanistan. Even though this promise does not yet have a deadline, the president would nevertheless have to say something substantial about it on July 1.  Mr. Kerry was convincing in saying his visit won support from the president. 

The fundamental elements of U.S.-Pakistan strategically mutual benefits remain unchanged. That means no significant changes in the bilateral relationship. Despite current accusations flying between the two nations, they are not core concerns, as demonstrated in statements by the two nations’ leaders. On the other hand, there is no consensus on whether the death of bin Laden is a challenge or an opportunity for the bilateral relationship. Pakistani leaders have moved quickly, a reflection of the possible effects of his death on the region. Pakistan may feel an urgent need for preventive measures by mobilizing its diplomatic resources. And what the U.S. is going to do next in the region is obviously a big concern to Pakistan. President Asif Ali Zardari recently visited Russian leaders to ask for their support for Pakistan to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Meanwhile, American opinions about Pakistan have been subtly changing. Although Senator Kerry did not apologize for the U.S. operation in Abbottabad, he did value the contribution Pakistan has made to the anti-terror campaign over the years.

Since the essence of U.S.-Pakistan ties remains unchanged, U.S. policy toward its bilateral partner is expected to revert to previous form. Some congressmen’s threats to cut off aid look like remaining empty talk. In the meantime, the U.S. is likely to use relatively favorable conditions after the death of bin Laden to work on its Afghan plan.  What the U.S. is going to do is not yet known. However, reportedly, the U.S. has contacted Afghan Taliban members to negotiate arrangements in the post-bin-Laden era. It is not known whether the Pakistani Taliban were consulted. But Washington should be quite clear that the Pakistani government has a crucial role to play in any possible future talks. Therefore, humiliating the Pakistani military, and its intelligence service, is not likely to do any good for future U.S. plans in the region.
Looking into the future, one may say that U.S.-Pakistan relations have not really been severely tested. The real test will be the retaliation wave already surfacing from extremist groups in Pakistan. As for the bilateral relationship, it was quite clear at the very beginning: the two sides have to continue to cooperate because the issues that have led to their alliance have not yet been resolved. And America’s intent out of all these interactions might be interpreted as a US plan to dominate matters.       

Zhao Gancheng is senior fellow and director of South Asia Studies, Shanghai Institute for International Studies.

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