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A New Chapter for U.S.-Pakistan Relations?

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
September 6, 2011

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Pakistan's arrest of three men (Dawn) it identified as senior operatives of terrorist organization al-Qaeda is being touted as a sign of renewed cooperation between Washington and Islamabad after months of tense relations. A statement by the Pakistani military said the operation conducted by the country's top military spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), was made possible with the "technical assistance" of U.S. intelligence agencies. The White House too hailed the capture (NYT) of the men, who were allegedly planning attacks on U.S. and other Western targets, as a sign of collaboration.

This is a significant shift in tone on both sides following fallout in relations, especially between the intelligence services. The stability of nuclear-armed Pakistan is essential to regional security, as well as to U.S. counterterrorism efforts and to a successful outcome of the war in Afghanistan. The relations suffered a setback in January when a CIA contractor shot and killed two Pakistani men in Lahore, and deteriorated further after the May 2 unilateral raid by U.S. Navy SEALs in a Pakistani town which killed al-Qaeda's top leader Osama bin Laden. Following the raid, Islamabad ordered all U.S. military trainers to leave the country and in July, Washington announced it was withholding $800 million in aid to the Pakistani military.

Despite the new sign of cooperation, issues of mistrust remain. U.S. officials continue to suspect ISI's links (BBC) with militant groups targeting U.S. forces in Afghanistan such as the Haqqani network. Also, U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan's northwest region along the Afghan border tend to draw harsh criticism from Pakistani officials in public.

Although U.S. successes against al-Qaeda have limited its capacity to unilaterally attack the United States, the threat from al-Qaeda working with or through associated militant outfits in Pakistan remains, says terrorism expert Stephen Tankel in this CFR Contingency Planning Memo. A terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland postmarked Pakistan, he adds, would severely strain U.S.-Pakistan relations and have implications for U.S. operations in Afghanistan.

U.S. strategy in Afghanistan remains a sticking point between the United States and Pakistan. A joint report by the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Pakistan-based Jinnah Institute finds that Pakistan's foreign policy elite and senior politicians perceive Washington's Afghanistan strategy "to be largely inconsistent with Pakistan's interests." One concern for the Pakistanis is a continued U.S. security presence in the region post-2014, which may entail retaining military bases in Afghanistan and using them for counterterrorism missions against al-Qaeda and other high value targets in Pakistan.

In a CFR report, South Asia expert Daniel Markey argues, "Washington must make its strategy in Afghanistan consistent with its approach to Pakistan." He says the U.S. military surge in Afghanistan should be pursued along with a special emphasis on weakening militants with bases in Pakistan to delineate "irreconcilable" Afghan insurgents from "reconcilable," those who may eventually have a seat at the negotiating table.

Besides a more streamlined and a transparent counterterrorism strategy, many analysts have called for a more comprehensive U.S. agenda prioritizing economic growth and civilian institution-building in Pakistan. A report from the New America Foundation (PDF) calls for a shift in U.S. support from aid to trade and investment, engaging with the Pakistani public and institutions at all levels of governance, including easing restrictions on travel visas and intensifying support for regional peace building through improved India-Pakistan relations.

Additional Analysis:

A report from the Center for American Progress calls for a comprehensive audit of all U.S. assistance to Pakistan.

Experts discuss the India-Pakistan security dilemma, how U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan may affect the relationship in the future, and a viable role for the United States at the Atlantic Council of the United States.

Background:

This CFR Crisis Guide examines the turbulent U.S.-Pakistan relationship and offers expert opinions on U.S. policy options going forward.

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