Is it over, over there?
By Harlan Ullman
The crucial divergences and competing interests between the US and Pakistan are no secret. If Bob Woodward’s newest book Obama’s Wars is accurate, the White House regards Pakistan as “the cancer” that must be cured and on which success or failure in Afghanistan rests
Just when it seemed that things could not get worse, they did. One would have thought that given the ongoing catastrophic floods, conditions in Pakistan were at a nadir. But last week, several incidents lowered even that bar regarding US-Pakistani ties.
NATO forces in Afghanistan made two unauthorised incursions into Pakistan, the second killing three Frontier Corps soldiers. CIA drone strikes soared, possibly provoked last week by threats of al Qaeda attacks in Europe using operatives trained in Pakistan and carrying US and friendly passports. In response to these incidents, Pakistan closed one of the major supply routes from Karachi to Afghanistan citing ‘security’ concerns arising from a backlash to the NATO forays into Pakistan territory. However, the signal was unmistakable regardless of the rationale — violate our territory again and suffer the consequences.
But, potentially, the most damaging incident was a cell phone camera video showing Pakistani army soldiers summarily executing a handful of prisoners in their custody. The most careful investigation to determine the real identity of the executioners is essential because the impact could be powerful in shaping even greater negative public opinion in Pakistan and in the US.
Without a transparent, credible inquiry, hearings by Congress into allegations of extra-judicial executions and illegal detentions by Pakistani security forces will be inevitable. The Senate had deferred these investigations including charges that the army held hundreds, if not thousands, of prisoners suspected of terrorism, refusing to turn them over to the courts on the grounds that these suspects would be released and would return to the battlefield. Ironically, the US’s categorisation of prisoners captured in the war on terror as ‘enemy combatants’, and incarcerating them at Guantanamo Bay to circumvent trials in civilian US courts, suggests this dilemma of dealing with terrorist suspects is not limited to Pakistan.
And, unfortunately, Pakistan’s interior minister asking whether the Americans were “friends or enemies” in the light of the incursions and other incidents is not an idle question in either Pakistan or the US, reflecting the growing strain.
Both Pakistan and the US tried to reduce the impact of these events. A joint investigation of the NATO incursions and an apology by ISAF Commander General David Petraeus to the Pakistan Army Chief of Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani will help. However, inherent difficulties and tensions in the overall relationship have never been fully resolved and have been exacerbated possibly to breaking point this past week.
The crucial divergences and competing interests between the US and Pakistan are no secret. If Bob Woodward’s newest book Obama’s Wars is accurate, the White House regards Pakistan as “the cancer” that must be cured and on which success or failure in Afghanistan rests. Americans rightly will not tolerate sanctuaries in Pakistan from which Taliban fighters can rest, recuperate and return to Afghanistan to kill and maim American, NATO and Afghan forces. These sanctuaries and Pakistani reluctance to take on terrorist groups such as the Haqqani network remain major bones of contention.
Pakistan sees any encroachment on national sovereignty as intolerable. Further, given strong public antipathy to the US (as opposed to individual Americans), any presence of American forces in Pakistan is politically risky and must be limited. Given the conspiracy theories that abound, distortions and exaggerations of American military and CIA presence in Pakistan are taken as ground truth and used to whip up negative public sentiment.
Because of the historical record, many Pakistanis doubt the US’s staying power in Afghanistan and resent its fickleness in using and then abandoning Pakistan at key junctures. The consequence is that Pakistan would be justified in its long-term planning and ‘going it alone’ given the hollowness of some of Washington’s prior reassurances. The effect is to widen the growing trust deficit between the two allies.
Opportunities must be seized from these worsening conditions. Here are two: first, the forthcoming strategic dialogue to be held in Washington this month can be the forum for addressing these key issues that divide and unite us. However, the two sides must agree to be candid, forthcoming and willing to compromise based on better mutual understanding of each other. That will require presidential leadership on both sides to repair the relationship.
Second, Pakistan must determine who was responsible for the summary executions and take appropriate action. If the army was not responsible, that must be shown beyond a reasonable doubt. If guilt is established, either a court martial or civil trial is essential. That happened in 1992 when the then army chief took strong action in similar circumstances.
But make no mistake, the US-Pakistan relationship is suffering. The worst outcome is for that relationship to be over, over there. Both sides must understand how severely tested this relationship has become and that without bold action by Washington and Islamabad, it may not be repaired.
The writer is senior advisor at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC and Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders in business and government
Source: The Daily Times, Pakistan