Whither Pakistan-U.S. Relations? Looking Toward the Afghan Endgame and 2014 | Wilson Center
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Whither Pakistan-U.S. Relations? Looking Toward the Afghan Endgame and 2014

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After the September 11, 2011, attacks, Pakistan and the United States entered into a new counterterrorism alliance. Yet ever since then, the relationship between the two nations has been a rocky one. Today, this troubled marriage seems to be approaching a breaking point. Can the shaky partnership be saved? Or will it dissolve in a messy divorce, as has happened in the past? Zahid Hussain, an award-winning Pakistani journalist and writer currently serving as the Wilson Center’s Pakistan Scholar, addressed these and related questions at an April 10 Asia Program event. Hussain singled out a series of incidents in 2011 that have severely damaged the relationship. In January, Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor, shot and killed two Pakistanis on a busy street in Lahore. In May, U.S. commandos stormed Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad—a mission the Pakistani government was never told about in advance. Yet the biggest blow occurred in November, when a NATO gunship accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers stationed at a base near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. This succession of events caused particularly great harm to the U.S.-Pakistan military relationship—a dimension of the broader partnership that has historically endured even when diplomatic relations have broken down. Hussain recalled witnessing a meeting at the National Defense University in Islamabad several days after the Abbottabad raid. For four hours, Army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani struggled to explain to a furious crowd of military colleagues the continued imperative of maintaining relations with the Pentagon. According to Hussain, however, the root of U.S.-Pakistan discontent is Afghanistan. Tensions have been rising since 2005, when the Afghan insurgency began to strengthen, and a “general perception” emerged in Washington that Pakistan was tacitly backing the Afghan Taliban. Today, said Hussain, many in the U.S. government believe Pakistan desires a “client Taliban state” in Afghanistan. While acknowledging the challenges of forging U.S.-Pakistan cooperation on Afghanistan, Hussain insisted that policy convergences do exist, and that the two sides therefore have compelling reasons to avoid a full rupture in ties. Their shared interests in Afghanistan include promoting stability, engineering a political settlement that allows for an orderly withdrawal of NATO forces, and—above all—preventing al-Qaeda from reestablishing a sanctuary. Hussain rejected the view that incessant drone strikes have neutralized the threat posed by this organization. In fact, he argued, al-Qaeda “threatens Pakistani security more than anything else.” He spoke of a “new Al-Qaeda” coalescing in Pakistan’s tribal belt, comprising both Pakistani and international militants—including many from Turkey and Germany. Finally, Hussain insisted that Pakistan does not want to see the Taliban return to power in Kabul. If the Taliban (an ethnic Pashtun organization) does take over once again, Pakistani Pashtuns might throw their national allegiances to their ethnic kin in Afghanistan. This would produce Pakistan’s “biggest nightmare”—a uniting of ethnic Pashtuns across the Durand Line separating the two countries. Such an outcome, explained Hussain, would render the border irrelevant and bring Pakistan perilously close to a state of “disintegration.”