Time to Cool the Rhetoric on Pakistan

However justified, the public berating of Islamabad has become counterproductive

The comments made by Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta during his swing through South Asia last week once again raise the question of how coordinated the Obama administration’s regional policy is.  An earlier post flagged this issue two months ago by noting the curious timing of Washington’s decision to offer a large bounty for the arrest or capture of Hafiz Muhammed Saeed, a major jihadi leader allowed to live in plain sight in Pakistan.

True, the decision was overdue and eminently warranted, as Saeed is a man who for too long has escaped the dispensation of justice.  But it was announced in a way sure to rub Islamabad’s already inflamed sensibilities, just as Washington began an effort to salvage collapsing relations with Pakistan.  It was unveiled during a visit to New Delhi by Wendy Sherman, the U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, who no doubt wanted to address complaints that the administration was letting Pakistan slide on the issue of anti-Indian terrorism.  But as it was issued on the eve of Deputy Secretary of State Thomas R. Nides’ arrival in Islamabad, the open reminder about their perfidy was a strange way to commence a trip aimed at making nice with Pakistani leaders.

Panetta’s words were similarly understandable but also counterproductive.  While in New Delhi he took a gratuitous swipe at Pakistani officials by publicly joking about the necessity of keeping them in the dark about the U.S. commando mission that killed Osama bin Laden – “They did not know about our operation.  That was the whole point.”  And in Kabul, he lashed out by warning Islamabad that U.S. leaders are reaching “the limits of our patience” regarding the sheltering of Afghan insurgents in the tribal areas.  The rebukes also follow the conspicuous snubbing of President Asif Ali Zardari at the NATO summit in Chicago last month.

To be sure, Panetta’s criticisms are entirely right on the merits.  Evidence of Pakistani treachery is in ample supply and has become the standard by which duplicity among allies will henceforth be measured.  The Abbottabad raid would have ended futilely, and most likely fatally for American forces, were the generals in Rawalpindi brought into U.S. confidence.  Likewise, Pakistan has played an egregious double game in Afghanistan, serving as the toll road for provisions destined for the same U.S. troops being killed and maimed by jihadi militants it enables.  And Panetta’s scolding only echoes the uncharacteristically blunt charges leveled last September by Admiral Mile Mullen, the immediate past chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who more than anyone else in Washington tried to establish a personal rapport with the Pakistani military leaders.

Yet the public smackdowns also undercut important U.S. interests.  A senior Pakistani military leader is quoted in the Washington Post as saying that he views the pointed joke in New Delhi as “an intended insult” and that “It is not the exclusive domain of the United States to lose its patience.”  The Los Angeles Times reports that the reprimands were so ill-received in Pakistan that they derailed a nearly-complete agreement to reopen key NATO supply lines into Afghanistan that Islamabad shut down after an U.S. airstrike killed 26 Pakistani soldiers near the Afghan border last November.

The closure is costing the United States some $100 million a month as cargo is shipped via more expensive routes through Central Asia.  In recent months, Islamabad has publicly insisted on a sharp increase in transit fees and a fulsome apology for the border incident in exchange for restarting the supply lines.  But according to the Times, Pakistani officials in private had in the last few weeks begun to back away from their public calls and many in Washington thought that a transit deal was within sight.  Now, following Panetta’s criticisms, Islamabad is back to demanding a full public apology.  The upbraiding might also have thrown a spanner in the exploratory talks that U.S. and Pakistani officials have held on a new counterterrorism partnership.

More broadly, the harsh rhetoric does not help the fragile democratization process within Pakistan.  A quick resolution of the transit dispute is very much in Islamabad’s interests.  The thread-bare public treasury –not to mention the Pakistani army’s vast business empire – is in desperate need of revenue that would come from increased transit fees as well as the $3.5 billion in military and economic assistance that the Obama administration has requested for the upcoming fiscal year.  Moreover, the country will soon be forced to turn once again to the International Monetary Fund for a financial lifeline, a move that will require Washington’s assent.

But U.S. officials also need to reckon with the new complexity of Pakistan’s domestic politics.  Gone are the times when a military autocrat could simply order up strategic cooperation with Washington, as Pervez Musharraf did at the outset of the U.S. war on terrorism.  Nowadays, Zardari’s elected government must contend with volatile public opinion that is incensed with perceived U.S. affronts to the country’s sovereignty and honor.  It also does not help that many Pakistanis see Zardari as an American patsy, a contention that his chief political rival, Nawaz Sharif, has seized upon with an alacrity that is matched only by its hypocrisy.

This week’s finding by a judicial commission that Husain Haqqani, Zardari’s first ambassador in Washington, is guilty of disloyalty to the nation provides Sharif with another drum to beat.  So Zardari has very narrow space to maneuver, especially as parliamentary elections approach, perhaps as early as this fall.  Sherry Rehman, the current Pakistani envoy in Washington, rightly notes that Panetta’s blunt rhetoric “leaves little oxygen” to those in Islamabad who seek a better relationship with the United States.

In between his broadsides last week, Panetta also said something that should be borne in mind by every Washington policymaker tempted to express his frustrations and indignations in the open:

It’s a complicated relationship, often times frustrating, often times difficult…. But the United States cannot just walk away from that relationship.  We have to continue to do what we can to try to improve (the) areas where we can find some mutual cooperation.

There is surely a place for tough talk in U.S.-Pakistan relations but these days it’s best kept behind closed doors.

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