One of the problems with the US-Pakistan relationship over the decades has been that the two sides tend to fall in and out of love like a tempestuous couple, rather than maintain a steady bond. So it’s wise to approach recent talk about a new strategic breakthrough with some caution and skepticism.
In the upbeat US version, the first big success for its new Afghanistan policy has come not in the battle of Marja but in Islamabad. Officials cite Pakistan’s cooperation with the CIA in capturing and interrogating top leaders of the Afghan Taliban, and Pakistan’s new dialogue with India. Pakistani officials agree that the US has taken quiet steps to reassure Islamabad that it doesn’t want to grab Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, and that it isn’t trying to smuggle in covert operators disguised as US contractors.
But officials on both sides appear wary of overpromising what this new partnership can deliver. There’s greater confidence, they say, because officials know each other better. Even so, “there is a fair amount of residual mistrust,” warns Shuja Nawaz of the Atlantic Council, a think tank.
One key US official characterises the relationship this way: “We have narrowed the gap in terms of strategic outlooks and that has allowed a greater cooperation on the tactical level.” But he cautions that it would overstate this rapprochement to call it a “strategic recalibration,” as some White House officials have.
The up-and-down history of the relationship was examined by CIA analysts in a recent report. They noted that this ebb-and-flow was driven in part by the personalities on both sides, but that the Pakistanis always retained a focus on their strategic interests — starting with their rivalry with India.
Given the centrality of India in Pakistan’s security calculus, US officials are encouraged by the resumption of high-level dialogue between India and Pakistan. The US administration has been working behind the scenes to reassure both sides. The X-factor in the Indo-Pak contacts is Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has been a strong advocate of better relations with his neighbour. US officials have advised Pakistan that Singh is an unusually farsighted leader who may be able to open doors in New Delhi that have otherwise been closed. The Indians, for their part, insist that no real progress in the relationship will be possible unless the ISI curbs Lashkar-e-Tayyeba, that it helped create.
To address Pakistani security concerns, the US has taken several steps. One is to implicitly accept Pakistan’s status as a declared nuclear weapons State and thereby counter conspiracy theories that the US is plotting to seize Pakistani nukes.
Obama made an early move when he told Dawn last June, “I have confidence that the Pakistani government has safeguarded its nuclear arsenal. It’s Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.” There have been similar private assurances, officials say. The US is also trying to combat Pakistani fears about covert US military or intelligence activities.
The trickiest issue remains Afghanistan. The Pakistanis provided important help last month by capturing Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. Because Baradar was the Taliban’s chief of logistics and had notebooks and computer records, the operation proved to be a “gold mine”, says one official.
But there’s always something new to worry about in this relationship. The Pakistanis are concerned of late that the US may negotiate a peace deal with the Afghan Taliban that cuts them out as an intermediary. “In reconciliation talks, Pakistan must have a seat at the table,” says one Pakistani. We should all be so lucky, if this proves the biggest problem.