Has Washington Lost Interest?

Sartaj Aziz

For better or for worse, the Pakistan-US relationship bestowed near-celebrity status on Pakistani officials for nearly a decade. Government officials and diplomats found themselves speaking before standing-room only audiences and the bright lights of American television studios. When Shah Mehmood Qureshi visited Washington as Foreign Minister in 2009, he too found himself in the spotlight of American media. Recently, however, the lights seem to have dimmed. It’s true that Jalil Jalani doesn’t have the star power of Husain Haqqani or Sherry Rehman, but there is a growing concern among some that Pakistani officials no longer have the attention of their Washington counterparts the way they once did.

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Imran Über Alles

Imran Khan yelling over everyone

In May, national elections were held and people elected a government. In democracies, elections are supposed to have consequences. When a party wins a mandate from the people, they are given the right to enact the policies they believe are in the best interest of the nation. In Pakistan, however, we have a topsy-turvy situation in which an opposition party is dictating policy and, in doing so, undermining the very democracy that so many have sacrificed to obtain.

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Chaudhry Nisar’s Nonsensical Explanation of Drone Policy

Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar

Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar has said that Pakistan is going to review US ties after an American drone strike killed the terrorist responsible for the deaths of thousands of Pakistanis, including innocent women and children and soldiers like Gen Sanaullah Niazi. The Interior Minister is probably right that our relationship with America needs review. After all, this is what he told journalists at Punjab House: Continue reading


The following is a transcript of the speech made by Ambassador Sherry Rehman at her first public event at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, DC on 15th February 2012.

Sherry RehmanDick Solomon, Tara Sonenshine, Steven Hadley, the Board at USIP, Moeed Yusuf, and the Pakistan Program Team at USIP Good morning and thank you for giving me the opportunity to address key members of the American policy community assembled here in Washington.

Pakistan’s commitment to the empowerment of women and minorities, and all vulnerable communities is the first place to start any conversation as well as initiative against extremism, because it is a defining contest, among so many others in any plural, diverse society. It is also really rooted in two fundamentals: One, there can be no prosperous, plural, progressive Pakistan at peace with itself and its neighbours if our policies don’t privilege the protection and empowerment of vulnerable groups. Second, this is the stated roadmap laid out by the founder of Pakistan, Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah at his most important policy address to the new constituent assembly of Pakistan. It is also a core value of the PPP policy agenda, important to President Zardari, who appointed me to this post, and Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto Shaheed. She embraced her death fighting for the politics of inclusion, which in our current context, includes taking on the full spectrum of extremists, militants and terrorists, often in one continuum. When it comes to advancing an extremist agenda, this blurring of lines between all three categories, and a multiplication of their strength, often at tactical, political and strategic levels, is a dynamic that often dilutes the force of political as well as state responses.

But this is not an existential or state identity crisis, in my view, neither is this a permanent condition. No government, or even military, can take on such a toxic and lethal combination in one go. The extremists find succor among terrorists to advance their agenda, and civil society and political majorities of the kind that Islamabad votes in need time and capacity to turn back this tide. Pakistan votes in progressive political parties by and large, which if empowered over time, can and must reverse the advances that the extremist idiom and militant muscle has made since Pakistan allied with the US against the war against Communism in Afghanistan.

You will hear me say this again and again in Washington: Pakistan has no shortage of commitment on the effort against extremism, militancy or terrorism today. It is impossible to open all fronts at one time, especially given the conflict in Afghanistan constantly spilling over into Pakistan both twenty years ago, and once again today. So this is a capacity issue as much as a sequencing challenge, and we often feel we are fighting this long battle with one hand tied behind our backs.

At the same time, I am happy to say that we are seeing the first democratic government in Pakistan in over three decades coming close to completing its tenure. This is no small achievement. The Pakistan parliament was able to pass its 20th amendment with near unanimity. This amendment is a singular milestone in our advance towards democracy, as it will set the ground-rules for a truly independent election commission. A level playing field in any electoral contest will add substantial weight and legitimacy to the vote now, and we hope it will draw more citizens in as stakeholders in reform and accountability. An lRl poll tells me that 59% of people now feel that voting gives them the chance to influence decision-making in Pakistan. This is a vital statistic, a bellwether for the path Pakistan is headed on. At this point let me also add, that Pakistan is on course to conduct its Senate polls on March 2nd, 2012, and general elections in its first peaceful and constitutional transfer of power since the 1970s.

After long non-democratic interludes, all institutions of government are seeking a difficult but crucial equilibrium. We see this as a pivotal and often painful transition to sustainable democracy, where the civilian government stands committed to the rule of law and respect for the court. For the first time in the history of Pakistan, the Prime Minister has appeared in the Supreme Court twice, with exemplary confidence with a view to upholding the supremacy of the law.

We are aware that, in the final analysis, a nation’s strength stems from the strength of its institutions and the stake its citizens have in its prosperity. While fighting a full-fledged war against the forces of terrorism and extremism, and coping with millions of dislocated persons, both from disasters as well as operations within Pakistan and from Afghanistan, we have made significant strides in strengthening our federation. Despite critical infrastructure and resource deficits we have invested in deepening fundamental freedoms for the media and judiciary. We have re-allocated long contested resources by  consensus in a National Finance Commission award, and are in the process of building the capacity of our provinces which have seen power devolved to them in great historic constitutional strides through our 18th Amendment. Governance remains a challenge with capacity and resource deficits. So does the provision of jobs and skilled human capital in the absence of new opportunities that have not replaced losses in an economy hit by conflict, losses worth 78 billion dollars (not to mention road infrastructure losses worth 122 billion dollars). We realize that we need to strive harder and work faster to deliver on reform promises made by our iconic leader, the late Benazir Bhutto, who gave her life fighting against terrorism.

But Pakistan today is not just about bombs and bullets. Far from it. We are the sixth most populous country in the world, with the largest youth cohort anywhere. Every fortieth person in the world is a Pakistani, in the most urbanized country in South Asia, but all are not intolerant, as tolerance and respect for plural identities is the norm. The outliers have captured street space and militant resource, not to mention media attention. Today the Pakistan story is also about its vast multiplicity of young musicians in the largest pop franchises in South Asia, its resilience in the face of natural calamity, its creativity in art, media, telecommunications, fashion weeks and literature festivals, but equally importantly, about the scale and complexity of ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity we negotiate every day. We boast high rates of political participation and leadership for women and are confident that a slew of recent landmark laws on women’s empowerment too will build serious equities in advancing a progressive agenda. Pakistan’s minorities remain on every serious leader’s minds in the extremist context we navigate every day, and we remain committed to building coalitions with civil society and political actors that seek common ground in the important but challenging task of protecting and empowering minorities. We have already rebuilt some of the churches and temples that Pakistan’s leaders have promised to protect, but we recognize that the protection of religious freedoms have a long road ahead in the region.

As far as Pakistan’s relations with the US is concerned, first of all, I would say that a re set was needed for a number of very good reasons. Some of these were structural, while some of the famous “trust deficit” gaps were informed by a profound cognitive, and even institutional, disconnect Many of the gaps can be mitigated, if we step back,  give pause and re-construct. But on the strategic end, this relationship has been burdened with too many expectations, and invested with an inordinately high wattage of emotion. The marriage metaphor for instance, never seems to go away, with its implicit embrace of love and hate, life, death and in fact, divorce, which we seek to avoid. Given the state of strategic flux our region faces at a time of unprecedented challenges, and the responsibilities such transitions bring with it, this is too important and too sensitive a relationship to carry this volume and scale of unregulated hyperbole. The good news is that many of us on both sides think it is time that this relationship matured into a more consistent, stable and transparent equation, with weight given to mutual respect, but once again that would be the subject best reserved right now for our parliament to decide.

I see that in your invite you mention the attack on Pakistani soldiers at Mohmand as a cut-off date for our broader bilateral engagement, but I would take this opportunity to say that the tragedy at Mohmand really served as an end-line trigger that called for a fundamental re-set. It was indeed shocking for the Pakistani nation to see the flag-draped bodies of 24 soldiers martyred in the line of active duty on the international border with Afghanistan, at the hands of our allies. In the absence of an immediate apology, this did cause the Pakistan street to erupt with questions about the egregious asymmetry in the calculus of comparative sacrifice between our two nations in terms of blood and treasure. So while the incident left a strong mark on the Pakistani psyche, spurring a re-think of the modalities of how we had been working together, it was not the sole motive for the Pakistani call for a re-think. As we all know, this event itself came on the heels of a long line of bilateral catastrophes in 2011. As far as this bilateral equation is concerned, as with all national security challenges, we are now on a road where we speak as one united government, where the military defends our borders, and the civilian leadership stands up for its soldiers, just as strongly and clearly as your leadership does for its military in the United States.

For Pakistanis, the notion of territorial sovereignty dominates public space today in important ways, simply because the symbol of its subversion is so repeatedly and unfortunately associated with the United State’s growing footprint in Pakistan. However, make no mistake, to us terrorists represent as much a breach of our sovereignty as state-sponsored unilateralism of any kind. You will be happy to hear though, that despite our resource constraints and much damage to Pakistani terrain, the core assets of Al Qaeda have been defeated and destroyed with Pakistani cooperation. I  am also encouraged to note that most interlocutors in the US Administration have echoed this view, which gives cause for hope and mutual appreciation.

Our challenge in the days ahead is to not only re-set this relationship in seminal ways so that we avoid being caught in the cross-hairs of a tough conflict in a very tough neighbourhood, but also build on vital gains that can bring more light than heat to any given situation. Among other tangibles, we clearly need a series of codified protocols where episodes stay off the red line radius, and therefore not contingent on the infrastructure of crisis management. The current rules of engagement, if you like, leave this vital relationship too vulnerable to the enemies of peace, as well as to our own gaps in communication. Volatility is the enemy of delivery in any bilateral construct, and I do believe that the divergence in our two narratives can be bridged if we invest in regular exchanges among our two great peoples, who individually build abiding relationships across great gulfs of space and time. Which is why we need to invest in more traffic between our nationals and not just our two governments. But this is not a prescriptive intervention. From our end, the way forward between the countries is a far more substantive conversation that right now is the prerogative of Pakistan’s parliament.

We have cooperated with the US at key moments in our history, but have managed somehow not to overcome the cognitive dissonance that derails the relationship. The negativity that you often see here is partly a function of information deficits on both sides. The media in both countries is very free and like all media, it flashes the bad news in nano seconds while good news everywhere crawls on it belly. So while Pakistan faces down a crippling internal terrorist challenge, the good news just stays on the ground while the flames from the fire make great footage.
The other thing we can both do better on is managing the official public discourse. Public official messaging has to be clearly and unequivocally non-coercive if it is to mean anything, especially in Pakistan. A consistency in our mutual public messaging will go a long way in bridging the static in our cognitive bandwidth. That will give moderates more space to build back better, stronger ties with the US.

As great political and economic shifts take place in the world, I hope that the response to challenges we face together as well as alone will be based on a recognition and evaluation of the possibilities and resources available to us in the realization of shared goals. Critics of a strong US-Pakistan relationship are questioning its viability in both nations, yet I feel we can use this opportunity to re-set our relationship on a clearer, more stable footing, based on public consent and strong mutually articulated goals that are achievable. The United States’ friendship is a pivotal element in our democracy and capacity-building endeavour.

Today Pakistan’s internal terrorism challenge is mostly a function of its location as well as its capacity in the face of high numbered daily casualties, both civilian and military. These casualties have shattered countless homes and families throughout Pakistan, and do not make the headlines anywhere except in Pakistan. Blowback from military operations and anti-terror offensives spur terrorist attacks on girls’ schools, hospitals, hotels, Sufi shrines, police precincts, all intelligence offices, and soldiers on the frontlines. There is no absence of political will or commitment. We are in full overstretch militarily in all the tribal areas on our western border, and with thin deployments from the Afghan side of the border, we face a substantial security threat from insurgents and militants in that area. The terrain is hostile to monitoring, and border indictments need to match our operations from both sides. As it stands, the NATO charter does not even include narcotics policing as a formal roster of duty for its patrols.

I have no intention of bringing a victim narrative to Washington but I do take this opportunity to inform the House that from today our embassy here will be putting out a weekly scorecard on Pakistani casualties sustained in the effort against terrorism. This will pose in sharp contrast, the staggering quantum of casualties sustained by Pakistan, only in human cost, to the losses sustained by the combined strength of our allies in the war next door. This initiative is not intended to vitiate the atmosphere. To the contrary, if anything, this will reduce the knowledge gap about the limits to Pakistani abilities to degrade, defeat and destroy terrorists of all stripes at the same time. And we hope it will bring sobriety to the sometimes vitriolic narrative in certain political quarters, which is a quality we endeavour to inject into the public conversations back in our country about the US as well.

As part of our vision for a secure, plural, democratic and prosperous Pakistan, we are firmly committed to playing a constructive role in promoting peace and stability in our region. I must draw your attention to a positive shift in Pakistan’s foreign policy agenda on two broad salients. One, Pakistan is pursuing a non-intrusive peace offensive in the region. In English, this means broadening and strengthening our relationship with India, which is stepping up to our offers of multiple and sustained conversations. It is our  intent to enhance our dialogue with India and to make it productive and result oriented, with the hope that the Kashmir dispute finds just and peaceful resolution. This also very importantly means we are reaching out to Kabul, where our Foreign Minister has recently met all political coalitions, in order to deepen trust and build mutual capacity for stresses the two countries continue to face, as civilian casualties from the conflict in Afghanistan reach their highest number in ten years. At this point I want to clearly state that Pakistan will support a peace process that is Afghan-led and Afghan owned, in real-time practice, not just as a policy platitude. We do not consider Afghanistan our strategic backyard, as many claim we do, but we do have the highest stakes in Afghan stability since we simply cannot afford the blowback from either a civil war there again, nor any other kind of surge into Pakistan, with its long, porous border. Our motives in the region are driven by a legitimate anxiety about the security transition in a post-US drawdown timeline in Afghanistan, certainly not ambition.

We consider Afghanistan our brother, as President Karzai likes to put it, and we continue to host about 3 million refugees that we seek to repatriate with dignity and respect back to their homeland. In a few days we will be hosting a trilateral summit between Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan at the highest level in order to broaden regional stakes in an Afghan-led peace. None of this of course, and I must emphasize this, precludes nor excludes the value of our core engagement so far with the US until 26/11 on all these important issues, but we do have a full spectrum review ending soon, which will roadmap the terms of our renewed cooperation. And that we hope will be very soon. America is right now the principal agent in the security and stability of Afghanistan and the region, and we do not, and certainly cannot disregard that.

Two, Islamabad is also diplomatically stepping up its strategic outreach to the global community, in which Pakistan sees itself as a productive member of a concentric circle of countries, both in our own continent and abroad. This includes engagement with Central Asian countries, with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, and Russia as well as China. We will of course seek to renew our important relationship with the US by reinvigorating it with new terms of engagement. We hope that by bringing greater clarity, coherence and operational coordination, we can move towards a partnership that is better hardwired for critical metrics of success, such as mutual respect and mutual benefit. We clearly have converging goals in seeking stability in the region, and hope that they can soon be pursued with greater vigor, openness and clarity. Pakistan can no longer make crucial strategic decisions based on one phone call, and I thank all  US officials and other interlocutors who have worked so hard to welcome me to Washington and to exercise patience throughout this “strategic pause” in our bilateral engagement.

Lastly, as my key priorities in Washington, in what is really a red-eye job, given our time difference and contemporary predilection for crises, I would like to strengthen and broaden the bilateral relationship, help set it on a firmer, transparent, equitable footing, and play my part in educating the people of both countries to better understand each other. I hope to give particular attention to the large and robust American-Pakistani community in the USA, and to seek their support in advancing mutual goals. The idea that trade insulates a relationship from the caprice of unintended consequences finds particular resonance with me, and my leadership in Pakistan would hope that the embrace of free trade values and conventions by the United States, whom we look to for inspiration and innovation in the great global marketplace will find accommodation for Pakistan’s goods in an enabling trade environment, reducing dependency from the vexing politics of aid.

I would like most of all to be remembered as the envoy who represented the first sustained elected government in many decades, that in the most challenging and exciting transitions to democracy, stayed the course to unite and reconcile our federation despite onerous odds, and anchored this critical bilateral relationship in the solid ground of public consent. American people know the value of power rooted in democracy, and I for one am known for speaking truth to power.

Thank you.

Life After the Salala Bombings

NATO protest

The recent NATO airstrike on two Pakistani military outposts near the village of Salala have triggered yet another flash point in U.S.-Pakistani relations. Officials in Islamabad have reportedly confirmed that at least 25 Pakistani soldiers were killed by strikes that involved both NATO helicopter gunships and fighter jets.

The cross-border incident has already claimed its first victims, as the U.S. subleased Shamsi airbase—a launching pad for drones flying over the tribal areas—and the crucial supply routes through Torkham to Western forces in Afghanistan have been sacrificed at the altar. Details of the strike are still shrouded in mystery however, but both U.S. and Pakistani officials have expressed concern over the ramifications the attack will have on the future of an already tumultuous relationship.

The United States and Pakistan have coped with crisis after crisis all year, from the Raymond Davis episode to the raid that killed Usama bin Laden. However, the recent air strike has brought Pakistani anger to a new apex especially since Pakistani blood now stains the soil. Some in Pakistan insist that this is the last straw and that rhetoric should be reinforced with action, implying the immediate severing of ties. But the partnership—as frustrating as it is—is durable and will remain firm into the foreseeable future. Essentially, after the smoke clears and the public diatribes are over, the U.S. and Pakistan will undoubtedly return to business as usual.

Given the Pakistani public’s rampant anti-Americanism, it is standard procedure for Pakistani representatives—both civilian and military—to publicly berate the U.S. when relations hit a critical point in order to preserve their domestic political support bases. Behind the scenes however, the U.S. and Pakistan acknowledge that they have vital overlapping interests including the neutralization of al Qaeda from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and the survivability of the CIA drone program. Indeed, these are the nuances of the relationship that nullify the prospect of a full-blown amputation of cooperation between the two.

Both Washington and Islamabad share the ambition to once and for all eliminate al Qaeda from the South Asian region. The terror network, while at first focused mainly on the disillusion of Arab autocracies had no intention of targeting the Pakistani state until former president Musharraf pledged his unflinching support for the U.S.’s War on Terror. Left with no choice but to categorize Pakistan as a kafir state, al Qaeda began engineering the ideological cultivation of Pakistan’s tribal areas after it sought refuge there following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.1

Its greatest achievement was the creation of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an umbrella term used to represent a phalanx of radical Islamist militant groups sworn to destroy the Pakistani state and replace it with a system heavily influenced by Sharia law.2 The al Qaeda affiliated TTP is responsible for notable attacks such as the Marriot Hotel bombing in Islamabad that left 54 dead, at least 266 people injured, and a gaping crater sprawled out in the street, and the siege of Mehran Naval base in Karachi earlier this year. The South Asian Terror Portal has also linked the group to a slew of suicide bombings in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP).

It is hard to believe that Pakistanis would shed a tear if the al Qaeda affiliated TTP were somehow dissolved. Indeed, the CIA’s drone program—operating out of Shamsi—located near the town of Washki in southwestern Pakistan—is tasked to do just that. In a deal forged during the Bush Administration, Pakistan agreed to allow U.S. drones to operate on its soil since it would assist in the killing of mutual enemies. These included senior al Qaeda members such as Sheikh Essa and TTP leader Baitullah Meshud, who was later incinerated along with his wife in 2008 by a Hellfire strike from a Predator. The U.S. was quick to accede and Pakistan has benefited from the vanquishing of its adversaries. In short, the Pakistanis want the drone program just as much as the U.S. does as long as it does not disrupt the operations of militants on the ISI payroll like Hafiz Gul Bahadar and Maulvi Nazir. In essence, the Pakistani security establishment knows that the country needs the drones for its own security.

There is also little to fear from Pakistani demands for the CIA to vacate Shamsi and the subsequent closing of the cross-border supply routes. According to Jayshree Bajoria at the Council on Foreign Relations, the squeezing of U.S. assets does little harm to U.S. operations in South Asia. It is reasonable to assume that given the nadir of the U.S.-Pakistani relationship after JSOC’s foray in Abbottabad that the CIA has prepared for a possible eviction and will wage its drone war elsewhere with Pakistani approval. Naturally, the Pakistanis have demanded the CIA leave the base, not end the drones.

Tom Gjelten at National Public Radio (NPR) also reports that the U.S. is exploring alternate supply routes to Afghanistan. The Northern Distribution Network (NDN), a series of routes from Europe across Central Asia that enter Afghanistan from the north, all avoid running through Pakistan.13 The NDN if successful, would help remove a critical piece of Pakistani leverage over the U.S.

Ultimately, while the death of Pakistani soldiers is tragic, the NATO attack on Salala is but a minor hiccup, leaving the crisis-laden partnership unscathed given the need for mutual cooperation on the counterterrorism front. In the coming days, a series of diplomatic meetings will likely cool Pakistan’s temperature and restore the alliance back to what it once was. Nonetheless, the U.S. and Pakistan are destined to experience these mishaps again and again.

1 Shahzad, Syed S., Inside al Qaeda and the Taliban, London: Pluto Press (2011) p. 8
2 Abbas, Hassan. “A Profile of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan.” CTC Sentinel 1, No. 2 (January 2008)

The author is a Research Assistant at the Woodrow Wilson International Center. He is currently working on a project detailing the history of US foreign policy towards Pakistan.