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A friendship of convenience

The odd couple of international relations, the US and Pakistan, are in need of marriage counseling. The source of marital discord has been known for some time.

india Updated: Oct 22, 2011 14:34 IST

The odd couple of international relations, the US and Pakistan, are in need of marriage counseling. The source of marital discord has been known for some time. The two supposedly wed because of a common war on terrorism but Pakistan has open infidelities with a cluster of militants. This was bluntly stated last week by the US military chief, Admiral Mike Mullen. He spoke of the "core problem" in US-Pakistan relations being the support given to the Taliban’s Haqqani network by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). This contradiction has been around for some time, but it has become harder to paper over. The American military operations in the Af-Pak have increasingly focussed on terrorist groups closest to the Pakistan military. Drone strikes have targeted the Haqqani network and the Hafiz Gul Bahadur group, both cultivated by Islamabad. The Raymond Davis incident highlighted how the US was tracking the activities of the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba, another one of Rawalpindi's terrorist wards.

It's hard to have sympathy for Pakistan, which has painted itself into a corner over terrorism. Having helped create groups like the Taliban and the Lashkar to further its interests, most of which are defined in opposition to India, Pakistan has since found that many have developed minds of their own. Islamabad has welcomed US attacks on groups that have turned against Pakistan, like the Tehrik-e-Taliban. But it continues to protect the ones it hopes to use against India or, increasingly, Afghanistan. However, its endgame in both cases is unwinding. Its support for the Haqqani network was predicated on the assumption that the US would pull out of Afghanistan in the next few years — an increasingly unlikely prospect. But Rawalpindi is probably taking heart from indications that the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, is seeking reconciliation with the Taliban elements closest to Islamabad. While it plays militantpolitik, Pakistan's economy and civil society are crumbling. This is making that country ever more dependent on Washington's dole even as anti-Americanism reaches historic highs in Pakistani. At a time when India's economic and global clout is growing exponentially, Islamabad's ability to extract concessions on bilateral disputes by holding on to the likes of Lashkar is also shrinking rapidly.

In theory, Islamabad can still work its way out of its present hole. But it needs to accept that its terrorism gambit has costs that far outweigh any potential benefits. It needs to combine the opportunity dialogue which India offers with the present overtures it is receiving from Kabul to settle its neighbourhood issues. And it then needs to settle the US's concerns about al-Qaeda. All this requires innovation and leadership in Islamabad that, so far, is largely absent. The US and Pakistan will patch up because they need each other. However, this will not further Pakistan along the path of becoming a 'normal' State. And that is the crux of the issue.