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U.S.-Pakistan Alliance in Trouble

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
June 26, 2008

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Increased military action by U.S. forces in Afghanistan to target suspected terrorists in Pakistan's tribal areas is putting a strain on Washington's already tense relationship with Islamabad. A June 10 U.S. air strike (IHT) in which Pakistan's army says eleven of its soldiers died was followed, just weeks later, by NATO forces firing into Pakistan (LAT) after being struck by rockets launched from Pakistani territory. The U.S. and Afghan governments consistently blame militants ensconced in safe havens in Pakistan's tribal areas for violence in Afghanistan, even though the Pakistani government says it's doing all it can to prevent such attacks. But now, patience on both sides has frayed. Afghan President Hamid Karzai last week threatened to send troops (Guardian) inside Pakistan to hunt down the militants. On June 25, Afghan officials publicly accused Pakistan’s intelligence service of plotting to assassinate (NYT) Karzai in April, further escalating tensions between the countries. Pakistan called the allegations baseless (AFP).

U.S. and NATO officials have expressed concern about the Pakistani's strategy toward militants in the tribal areas. Specifically, they warn that ongoing peace talks between Pakistan's newly elected government and tribal leaders in the border region may be leading to increased violence in Afghanistan. NATO spokesman Mark Laity cautioned (Dawn) against the peace deals, saying that such accords have fueled the Afghan insurgency in the past. Amid the ongoing peace talks, militants executed a twenty-two-member peace committee of tribal elders (al-Jazeera). Even so, polls continue to show a majority in Pakistan favor talks with the militants over military action. For instance, a May poll by Terror Free Tomorrow (PDF), a group that includes Sen. John McCain and 9/11 Commission co-chairs Lee Hamilton and Thomas Kean on its advisory board, found that 58 percent of Pakistanis surveyed favored negotiations, while only 19 percent favored U.S. military action against al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Meanwhile, serious political differences exist within Pakistan's ruling coalition on issues relating to constitutional amendments, proposals to impeach President Pervez Musharraf, and the reinstatement of judges deposed during a November 2007 state of emergency. Lisa Curtis, South Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation, believes the political maneuvering in Islamabad is distracting the Pakistani government from dealing with growing militancy in the tribal areas. Experts say the unclear power dynamic between the newly elected civilian leaders and the army, arguably the country's dominant institution, raises questions about the long-term viability of the partnership. A new report by RAND Corporation's Seth G. Jones goes further, charging that some individuals in the Pakistani government continue to support (PDF) militant groups inside Pakistan.

But experts caution against taking Pakistani political rhetoric, often aimed at a domestic audience, at face value. Newsweek's Michael Hirsh reports that Pakistan has been quietly discussing counterinsurgency plans in the tribal areas with Gen. David Petraeus, the next commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), under which the Afghan conflict falls. At the same time, many worry that unilateral military action by the United States would be counterproductive. Ashley J. Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace writes in The Washington Quarterly that the Pakistan polity, army, and intelligence services "are still deeply suspicious of long-term U.S. intentions in the region" (PDF). Xenia Dormandy of Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs argues: "If America wants to succeed in the War on Terror, it needs the support of Pakistan. Refocusing the problem to address Pakistan’s needs is the only way of doing this."

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