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Pakistan and the US: Keeping your enemy close

Publication Date : 06-07-2012


For months neither side would budge. The Pakistani government wanted more money for Nato military vehicles passing through its territory and over the border into Afghanistan. But the US-led forces thought it was too much to give, and not in line with what Islamabad had promised - unwavering support in the global war on terrorism.

This debate over the "gate fee" came to the fore after Nato jets pounded a border outpost last November and accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. Washington expressed regret but never apologised for the incident - well, not until just days ago. US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed condolences to her Pakistani counterpart Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar.

"We are sorry for the losses suffered by the Pakistani military," Clinton said in a statement, recounting her discussion with Khar. "I offered our sincere condolences to the families of the Pakistani soldiers who lost their lives. Foreign Minister Khar and I acknowledged the mistakes that resulted in the loss of Pakistani military lives."

The incident drove a deeper wedge between the two countries at a time when they could really do without such problems. Nato was forced to send its supplies via the northern route through former Soviet countries, at a much costlier price.

The US is leading the multinational forces attempting to rid neighbouring Afghanistan of the radical Taleban and al-Qaeda.

US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, who earlier said he was running out of patience with Pakistan, also welcomed the decision to reopen the supply route. "As I have made clear, we remain committed to improving our partnership with Pakistan and to working closely together as our two nations confront common security challenges in the region," he said.

This latest dispute is not all about the US wanting to save money and Pakistan wanting an apology. If anything, it reflects the already-strained relationship between two countries that need each other more than they want to admit.

It is not clear what was behind the Pakistani decision, but it has been reported that the US will free up US$1 billion in support for Pakistan's counter-terrorism programme, which has been on hold for some time.

In a way, both sides are taking a leap of faith. Washington has for years accused Pakistan - specifically its military intelligence wing - of playing a double game by giving apparent cooperation to the US-led forces while at the same time turning a blind eye to extremist elements in the country and permitting the Afghan Taleban to roam around the country freely.

The New York Times, in a recent editorial, slammed Pakistan for refusing to cut ties with the Haqqani network, calling it a "double game".

"Fighting extremists should be grounds for common cause, but there is no sign that Pakistan's military leaders get it. They see the need to confront the virulent Afghan-based insurgency that threatens their own country and has killed thousands of Pakistani soldiers and civilians. But they refuse to cut ties with the Haqqanis and other militants, who give Islamabad leverage in Afghanistan and are the biggest threat to American efforts to stabilise that country," the Times said.

From the Pakistani side, keeping such ties, even with people they may not trust, is essential for their own survival after the international force leaves the area in the near future. In other words, unless the world can ensure Pakistan's long-term security, we can always look forward to Islamabad seeking more support from and connections with others.

Nevertheless, the US cannot walk away just because it doesn't like whoever else the Pakistani military and government talks to. Besides needing Pakistan's help in opening and maintaining the supply route, Washington also needs it to press the Taleban into peace talks. And let's not forget that the US also wants to play a role in monitoring Islamabad's growing nuclear arsenal.


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