The Widening U.S.-Pakistan Rift

The Widening U.S.-Pakistan Rift

The U.S. drone attack that killed an al-Qaeda leader has further frayed ties and is feeding Pakistani anger, humiliation, and frustration over U.S. aims, says CFR’s Daniel Markey.

June 7, 2012 3:01 pm (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

The CIA drone attack June 4 in northwest Pakistan that killed deputy al-Qaeda leader Abu Yahya al-Libi is the latest in a string of incidents that has brought U.S.-Pakistan relations to "a new low, relative to what we’ve seen since 9/11," says CFR South Asia expert Daniel Markey. In addition to drone attacks, the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden, U.S. air attacks killing Pakistan soldiers along the Afghan border, and anti-Pakistan rhetoric have all contributed to the strained relationship. Markey also attributes the rift to the intensity of the Obama administration’s counterterrorism focus and Pakistani mistrust about U.S. objectives in the region.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, visiting Afghanistan June 7, said because of attacks from Haqqani forces--insurgent Afghan forces based in Pakistan--the United States is "reaching the limits of our patience" with Pakistan. Does this indicate a new low in U.S.-Pakistan relations, or is this the new norm?

More From Our Experts

It is a new low relative to what we’ve seen since 9/11 [September 11, 2001], or at least it’s a continued low from where we’ve been since the killing of Osama bin Laden last year [May 1, 2011]. Relations got even worse last November with the friendly-fire incident along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in which some twenty-eight Pakistani soldiers were killed. But we should remember that before 9/11, the relationship with Pakistan was almost nonexistent, certainly in terms of any kind of U.S. assistance. The anger wasn’t quite as high then, or the frustration, but neither was the degree of interaction. Throughout the 1990s, we had sanctions imposed against Pakistan.

That was because of Pakistan’s nuclear program, right?

More on:



Terrorism and Counterterrorism


Right. The United States had made it clear to Pakistan that if they pursued nuclear weapons, sanctions would be imposed. And there have been other low points. In 1979 the U.S. embassy was attacked in Islamabad, and rather than taking firm action against the rioters who rampaged the place, the government of General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq essentially let the protest burn out. That is to say that times have actually been worse in the past, but they are very bad now.

Pakistan was among our closest allies when I started covering foreign affairs in the 1960s. How did relations plummet so?

There is an underlying anti-Americanism in almost every corner in Pakistan.

Certainly this latest downturn has something to do at least with the endgame in Afghanistan and disagreements between the United States and Pakistan over that, coupled with the very intense counterterror focus by the Obama administration that has been unrelenting--both in the good sense that it has secured a variety of significant accomplishments, but in the less good sense in that it has also not stopped Pakistani anger, humiliation, and public and private frustration.

More From Our Experts

How does the United States justify the use of drones that attack Pakistani territory?

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to justify politically. It used to be the case, even a year or so ago, that it was very clear that the Pakistani military and top Pakistani political leaders were on board with the U.S. drone program, even if they were upset by its intensity and frequency, and worried about the public backlash it was engendering inside of Pakistan. This has shifted over the past year and it is less clear to me now that those leaders are even privately telling the U.S. government that it’s ok for them to continue with the type of drone attacks that they’re doing.

The problem is that the Pakistani military has little in the way of leverage with the United States on this point. Washington clearly sees the drones as useful, and this latest killing of Abu Yahya al-Libi is an indication of that. So it’s not going to stop. The Pakistanis could conceivably put their foot down, they could even shoot down one of these drones to send a signal, but that would be really an act of war in a way they don’t appear willing to escalate to because they know the consequences would be far worse for them.

More on:



Terrorism and Counterterrorism


You’ve just been in Pakistan. Is there now a stronger anti-American feeling?

There is an underlying anti-Americanism in almost every corner in Pakistan. This is not new, though. Some of it is being exacerbated and mobilized by politicians and others in the Pakistani state for their own parochial purposes. The way to see it is that Pakistanis sort of swim in a sea of anti-Americanism for a variety of reasons. It’s everywhere. It’s not all angry or passionate or violent, but there is a great deal of skepticism about U.S. aims in the region, and frustration that, as many Pakistanis put it to me, "even when the United States says that they will help us or be a partner to us, we don’t see the tangible evidence of that."

Part of the problem is that there is less help than even American officials would like--that is, delivery of assistance programs have always been delayed, and there are always congressional challenges to that. The other part is that Pakistanis don’t necessarily see a lot of the aid that has been delivered. It’s been done through the Pakistani government, or without significant U.S. branding, so it’s invisible to them. The benefits of the U.S. partnership are often out of sight, and the costs are highlighted by their politicians and by their media, which, like most semi-free media, tends to harp on violence and play up [violent] video.

Civilian deaths often accompany these drone attacks.

This is a big dispute. The U.S. government in both official and leaked claims suggests that the number of civilian causalities is quite low. Of course, some of this is relative. If the United States was intent on killing some of these terrorists and using dumb bombs out of F-16s, it could do that too, and there would be hundreds if not thousands of casualties. The flipside is, yes, there have undoubtedly been civilian casualties, and those who are opposed to the United States inside of Pakistan for other reasons--even those who simply have humanitarian concerns--worry about this. This is filtering back into a debate in the United States and certainly in other countries about the legality of the use of drones, the proportionality, and the decision-making process that allows, in this case, the president of the United States, to indirectly pull the trigger without a wider or more transparent process.

Did the Obama administration think about giving Pakistan advance warning about the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad last year, or invite the Pakistani forces to participate in it? Clearly that was a great shock to the Pakistani leadership and military, and as you noted, relations have been bad since then.

The Pakistanis, at least the more sophisticated ones, have recognized they don’t have total control over the Haqqanis or any other elements of the Afghan Taliban. But they believe the Haqqanis are probably their best proxies in any future Afghanistan.

There was probably a brief debate within the Obama administration’s inner circle of people who had any knowledge of the impending raid. I’m sure they ruled it out almost out of hand, due to their skepticism about Pakistani potential double dealing, and also their concerns about operational security. They hardly told anybody within the administration that they were doing it, much less anybody in any other country.

That said, it was a huge risk. Had the raid gone bad, the potential for some sort of firefight with Pakistani military was quite high. And as bad as things were in the aftermath in terms of the diplomacy and all that’s happened since, they would have been exponentially worse if such a thing had happened. In addition, many of the [Obama administration] officials who are primarily concerned with diplomatic engagement with Pakistan were not informed in advance.

This was very much of a counterterror operation. Those involved on that side of the ledger were involved; those involved in the diplomacy with the Pakistanis were not. As far as I can tell, there was little in the way of a follow-on diplomatic plan or strategy in place, so that the United States could move quickly either to mitigate the fallout of this inside of Pakistan or to seize upon the opportunity which presented itself.

Why doesn’t Pakistan take action against the Haqqani network instead of letting the group take sanctuary in Pakistan?

There are at least two reasons. One is that the Haqqanis are a powerful, sophisticated, and well-resourced terrorist organization with the ability to hit back hard, and Pakistan would feel significant pain both in terms of its direct military operations against the Haqqanis in the tribal areas, but also almost certainly in Pakistan cities and towns where the Haqqanis would be able to probably unleash a very painful terrorist campaign. So biting off the challenge of attacking the Haqqanis has always been seen as a really big deal for the Pakistani state.

However, the reason they are also inclined not to fight this Haqqani challenge is that the Haqqanis have been scrupulous in directing their attacks outside of Pakistan. They have said their primary concern is inside of Afghanistan and removing the NATO and U.S. forces, and transforming the Afghan state back into one in which they have significant control or power. They do work hand-in-hand with Taliban and other militants who are opposing the Pakistani state, and in that sense they’re double dealing the Pakistanis in a way that we often consider the Pakistanis to be double dealing us.

The Pakistanis, at least the more sophisticated ones, have recognized they don’t have total control over the Haqqanis or any other elements of the Afghan Taliban. But they believe the Haqqanis are probably their best proxies in any future Afghanistan. So they have retained the closest ties with them, and they don’t have a lot of other allies in Afghanistan. If Pakistan is concerned about Afghanistan falling apart after NATO goes or becoming too close to the Indians, they are trying to retain their allies, as messy and ugly and unsatisfactory as these particular allies are.

I think the Pakistani policy is short-sighted. If they actually succeed in retaining ties with the Haqqanis and Afghanistan falls to pieces after the United States leaves, the Haqqanis will then turn on them.


Top Stories on CFR

United Kingdom

CFR experts discuss the results of presidential elections in France and the United Kingdom, as well as what to expect from the 2024 NATO Summit in Washington, DC.

Election 2024

Each Friday, I look at what the presidential contenders are saying about foreign policy. This Week: Republicans are gathering in Milwaukee next week optimistic about their chances in November.  


The surprising shift to the left in snap elections has broken the far-right populist fever in France, but now a crisis of governability looms in Paris that has further weakened President Emmanuel Macron’s grip on power.