Allies or Antagonists

Is the Pakistan-US relationship strained and checkered because of the frustrations in Afghanistan, or is it a façade for something else?

Posted on 05/30/16
By Imtiaz Gul | Via The News on Sunday
(US ambassador to Pakistan during a meeting with Pakistan's army chief General Raheel Sharif in Rawalpindi. (Photo via News International)
US ambassador to Pakistan during a meeting with Pakistan’s army chief General Raheel Sharif in Rawalpindi. (Photo via News International)

In an apparent damage-control attempt, David Hale, the US ambassador to Pakistan rushed for a meeting on May 25 with the boss of the General Headquarters (GHQ), General Raheel Sharif.


What he heard from the host was a plain rebuke on the drone strike (that reportedly killed Taliban Mulla Mansoor) as an act of “sovereignty violation” that is detrimental to relations between both countries and is counter-productive for ongoing peace process for regional stability.


Much earlier, in October 2013, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had described the issue of drones as a “major irritant in our bilateral relationship.”


The use of drones is not only a continual violation of our territorial integrity but also detrimental to our resolve and efforts at eliminating terrorism from our country,” Sharif had said in an address at the US Institute of Peace in Washington.


Even otherwise, Pakistan has routinely lodged protests since 2006, the CIA has conducted about 423 such strikes (according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism).


Drones linked to the US policy

Did such protests also by the Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch deter the CIA from deployment of drones? Certainly not because the US thought differently.


“US counterterrorism operations are precise, they are lawful, and they are effective, and the United States does not take lethal strikes when we or our partners have the ability to capture individual terrorists,” White House Spokesman Jay Carney had said in October 2013.


The frequency of drone flights has considerably declined in the last two years or so but not because of objections or deference to concerns of other countries; most al-Qaeda operatives either got killed or left the region.


The bottom line, as spelt out by diplomatic sources, is unambiguous: if a threat exists where Pakistan or any other country has ceded sovereignty, or is unwilling or able to take action, the US will in its national interest. Mulla Mansoor’s elimination underscores precisely this.


Counter-terrorism, obsession with Pakistan’s nuclear program and promoting the Asia-pivot policy, of which the strategic alliance with India is the cardinal piece are some of those interests that define the US relations with Pakistan too.


Currently, policy divergences on Afghanistan sit at the heart of the US-Pakistan relations. Pakistani perceptions on the US geo-political objectives in the region, particularly to the context of growing Pak-China synergy in trade and development, also serve as precipitating factors for the bumpy relationship.


Afghanistan at the core

It’s ironic though that the counter-communism of the past, i.e., the anti-Soviet jihad has now morphed into a counter-terrorism affair, involving more or less the same elements with the same basic ideological trappings. On both occasions, the respective US administrations condoned military rulers in Pakistan to stich up a geo-political alliance for action in Afghanistan. In the 1980s, both US and Pakistan went all out to support non-state actors. Both again joined hands in the international coalition against terrorism to take on the same forces they had trained, fed and supported.


The ensuing divergent approaches to fighting terrorism have eventually sowed mistrust in the bilateral relationship, highlighted in the Mulla Mansoor episode as well; if Mansoor was traveling from Iran, we could have arrested him in a joint operation, a highly placed General told the writer the day Taliban announced Haibatullah Akhunzada as the new chief. Mansoor’s killing in mysterious circumstances, the general argued, also underscores the disagreement on how to pursue peace in Afghanistan.


Perplexed Pakistan

We have yet to figure out why this all happened, the general said, wondering whether the US and allies would still prefer the military option following years of futile combat.


Was it a drone strike at all or was Mansoor killed somewhere else and eventually dumped into the car before torching or shelling it, with his passport lying several meters off the car?


This incident certainly is a big blow to us all. It may not entail as severe consequences as the May 2, 2011 Osama bin Laden raid did, but this incidents is certainly a big jolt to the bilateral relations.


Iran factor

The general wouldn’t say the Iranian intelligence betrayed Mansoor but Amrullah Saleh, the former Afghan intelligence chief claimed before the media in Kabul that “Intel sharing between US and Iran led to Mansoor’s killing.”


Similarly, Obaidullah Barekzai, a member of the Parliament’s lower house, told the largest Afghan TV station, Tolo that Mulla Mansoor was killed probably “because of his increasing contacts with Iran and Russia.”


Even the American media, quoting US officials, already spoke along these lines: the Pakistanis tried and grew frustrated in February by Mulla Mansoor’s refusal to send representatives to meet with the Afghan government. Around the same time, people who maintain contacts with the Taliban began to report that Mulla Mansoor had left Pakistan and was spending time in Iran,” wrote the Wall Street Journal.


If true, this reported US-Iran intel-sharing represents a new headache for Pakistan, particularly following the Iran-India-Afghan agreement on the Chabahar Port, a project vocally supported by the United States, too.


This takes us back to the issue of mistrust that continues to dog our relations with the United States, says Gen.(retd) Nasir Khan Janjua, the national security advisor. We still consider the QCG process as the best hope for peace in Afghanistan, Janjua told the writer.


Unlike the US administration’s expectation that Mansoor’s death may pave way for peace, veteran analyst, Marvin Weinbaum, thinks the peace process is doomed; it (US) put the final nail in attempts to find a political way of out of the Afghan conflict, Weinbaum, said. “The direct order by President Barack Obama that Mansoor be killed makes it clear that the Afghan conflict will be settled on the battlefield, not at a conference table,” Weinbaum said.


On May 26, Sartaj Aziz, the foreign affairs advisor, too, almost directly accused Washington of scuttling the peace process by killing Mansoor.


US failures/frustrations in Afghanistan

Another debilitating factor that weighs down the bilateral relations to the disadvantage of Islamabad is spiral of frustrations and failures in Afghanistan, for which the blame often lands at Pakistan’s doorstep.


Zalmay Khalilzad, a former US ambassador to Kabul, offers an instructive narrative on this; our difficulties have resulted from reactive rather than anticipatory policies. ……..weak or nonexistent government in the provinces left areas vulnerable to the enemy. Other governance problems, notably corruption and poor delivery of services, went unaddressed. These difficulties were compounded by the way the United States mishandled the relationship with (former president) Karzai. He was mystified by our failure to address the sanctuary problem and incensed that U.S. officials wouldn’t even discuss the issue with him honestly. Karzai eventually gravitated toward conspiracy theories: perhaps the United States wanted to perpetuate the insurgent threat in order to create an excuse for its continued military presence in Afghanistan?


Mother of all questions Pakistanis are asking right now; is the US-Pakistan relationship strained and checkered because of the former’s frustrations in Afghanistan, or is it a façade for something else? What is the US upto in the region in months and years ahead? What is the rationale of killing, A: (Mansoor) when voice from within Washington, New Delhi and Kabul were projecting, B: (the Haqqani Network) as the major hurdle in the way of peace?


The writer heads Centre for Research and Security Studies, and is also the author of “Pakistan: before and after Osama”. He can be reached at

This article first appeared at The News on Sunday. Click here to go to the original.

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