Pakistan and United States: A Change in Rules of Engagement?

Will last week’s NATO airstrike killing 24 Pakistani soldiers really be a game changer in terms of Pakistan’s relationship with the United States and Afghanistan? Possibly. Based on Pakistani government’s reaction so far of shutting down NATO supply routes into AFghanistan and asking the United States to vacate the Shamsi airbase (both actions that Pakistan has taken previously), it is hard to say just how serious Islamabad is when they claim that the U.S should not expect business as usual. However, what is definitely clear is that Pakistan is adopting a more stricter line of action than before.

Pakistan’s decision of not attending the Bonn Conference on the future of Afghanistan is perhaps the strongest reaction yet in light of all the events of this year. With just a day left before the conference starts on Monday, December 5, Pakistan still shows no signs of changing its decision in spite of phone calls from Hilary Clinton, Angela Merkel, Hamid Karzai and Barack Obama.

Pakistan’s prime minister Yusuf Raza Gilani stated that the deadly ISAF/NATO attacks have compelled Pakistan to “re-visit [their] National Security paradigm”. The Pakistani Cabinet will meet on December 8 to reassess the future terms of engagement with the United States. Moreover, Pakistan has refused to take part in the CENTCOM investigation into the events of the NATO airstrike maintaining that NATO provided them with the wrong coordinates to get a clearance for military action along the border.

Meanwhile, Washington continues to believe that the United States and Pakistan “have shared interests in the fight against terrorism”. White House spokesman Jay Carney said at a press conference that, “we continue to believe that it will be in not just in US interests but Pakistan’s interest to work with us cooperatively on our shared goals.” “Don’t forget that Pakistan and the Pakistani people have been primary victims of terrorism and terrorists” Carney continued, “and that we work with them that cooperative relationship has borne fruit for the US and for our National Security interests.”

Similarly, U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey suggested that while U.S. and Pakistani relationship was “on about as rocky a road as it has been” in the past 20 years or so, the situation was not irretrievable. Dempsey seems to be convinced that this airstrike will not have much of an impact on U.S. and Pakistani relations.

Both Carney and Dempsey’s statements highlight how the United States continues to assume that both countries share similar interests in the region. With the same underlying assumption, the New York Times editorial on November 28, claimed that “before things get out of control, Pakistan’s leaders need to lower their rhetoric and make clear that it is in their country’s interest to work with the Americans to find out what happened and ensure it will not happen again.”

Not only is it standard for Washington and the U.S. media to believe that Pakistan’s military constantly supports Taliban and other insurgents, they also assume that whatever happens in that region has to be in the best interests of the United States. Why would Pakistan’s government risk the wrath of it’s general public and continue to allow United States to invade Pakistan’s sovereignty? (See: drone strikes killing innocent civilians, Abottabad raid, Raymond Davis)

Soon after the deadly strike, two senior U.S. lawmakers also called for stricter diplomatic measures in dealing with Pakistan. In fact, this entire year, politicians and analysts have been asking for a change in the way that the U.S. engages with Pakistan. However, they continue to base their ideas on the assumption that Washington can somehow convince Islamabad to start acting in U.S. interests, and that Pakistan’s military can be manipulated by stopping or reducing the amount of foreign aid to Pakistan.

The New York Times editorial also claimed that, “without American support, Pakistan’s fragile government will be even more vulnerable to extremist attacks.” Except, a significant part of the rise in terrorist attacks and Islamic extremisms in Pakistan has been a result of the Pakistani government and military’s “decision” (Either you are with us or against us) to align with the U.S. in the flight against Islamic extremism. Also, both Russia and China have shown support for Pakistan following the NATO/ISAF attacks. Therefore, at the moment Pakistan does not appear to be short of friends in the region should Pakistan decide to put an end to its “friendship” with the United States.

I do not believe that Pakistan will go so far as to completely break off ties with the United States, mainly because the Pakistani military and government want to continue to have an active role in the future of Afghanistan. In addition, Pakistan would not want U.S., India and Afghanistan to be close allies relegating Pakistan in a weaker position in the region. However, in the long run, this might actually be a good time  for Pakistan to downgrade the relationship with U.S. to minimal level without making enemies and focus on its own domestic economic, political and social issues.

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