Few are more jaundiced to the ups and downs of the relationship between the United States and Pakistan than Indians. There is a jaundiced view that, ultimately, these two countries may scream and shout every now and then but they need each other too much not to get back together. And that, in the end, it is Indian interests that will receive short shrift. The pattern does seem the same. US military chief Mike Mullen hits out at Pakistan. After being echoed by others, however, the State Department and others step in and say that Mr Mullen was speaking through his hat.
The US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s present visit to Pakistan had the advantage of at least putting forward a united American point of view. But there was no talk of Mr Mullen’s most damning claim — that the Haqqani network, which had been attacking US troops and facilities in Afghanistan, was being supported by the Pakistan military’s notorious Inter-Services Intelligence. There were warnings to Islamabad about its nurturing of terrorists — “snakes in your backyard” — and that there would be ‘consequences’ if these wards of Rawalpindi ever extracted too high a price in American blood. However, what seems to really lie behind all this smoke and fire is the great game over Afghanistan. The US withdrawal is continuing apace and so is Washington’s hope to force a negotiated settlement with the Taliban before its last soldier goes home. Or because, without such a settlement, its last soldier can’t really go home.
If there is a pattern in US policy, it is one of applying pressure on Islamabad — whether through Mr Mullen’s statement or making the US Congress hostile to the idea of giving military aid to Pakistan — to force the Haqqani network to the negotiating table. Afghan ruler Hamid Karzai’s recent trips to India and, soon, Iran are about improving his leverage at the same talks. Islamabad, obviously, would prefer the Haqqani network to remain as strong as possible. Pakistan sees this terrorist group as its path to power in Kabul, once again making Afghanistan into a strategic appendage. Telescoping what is likely to be long, bitter negotiations, the question remains that between the US and Pakistan who will blink the most? At present, it looks as if the latter has more patience and will. A timeline for US withdrawal means the other side can simply play for time. Attention-sapping US elections are around the corner. But Pakistan stands on weak economic legs and its hopes for Chinese largesse have been so far belied. Rawalpindi’s weakness lies in the fragility of its home front, an environment created by its political interference and snake-breeding ways.