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US-Pakistan relations deteriorate as Washington looks to India for new regional support June 21, 2012

Posted by nishankmotwani in : Future Directions International, India, Pakistan , trackback

Andrew Manners

Background

US-Pakistan relations are currently ‘the worst they’ve ever been’, according to a senior US official.  The tumultuous relationship continues to be hampered by an impasse over NATO supply routes to Afghanistan and the perceived reluctance of Pakistan to crack down on militants in its northern tribal areas. As US military aid to Pakistan remains suspended, there are now signs that the US is looking toward New Delhi, rather than Islamabad, as its key regional ally.

Comment

While the US has traditionally viewed Pakistan as its key regional ally in the War on Terror, recent events have seen the relationship hit a new low. In particular, the two remain at loggerheads over Pakistan’s six-month blockade of NATO troop supplies meant for Afghanistan and its supposed harbouring of militants in the northern tribal areas.

U.S. Secretary of Defence, Leon E. Panetta inspecting the Guard of Honour in New Delhi

The blockade of NATO troop supplies meant for Afghanistan is the latest irritant threatening to derail a relationship that was already deteriorating rapidly. Pakistan shut its border to NATO supply convoys in November 2011, after a botched US air strike killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. Negotiations to reopen the route, seen as a vital logistical link for NATO as it plans a large-scale withdrawal of combat troops and equipment by the end of 2014, have proven unsuccessful. In a sign of their cooling ties, President Obama, angered over the supply issue, refused a one-on-one meeting with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari last month at a NATO summit in Chicago.

The stalled negotiations coincide with remarks made by US Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta, on 7 June. He accused Islamabad of failing to crack down on terrorists operating inside Pakistan, Agence France-Presse reported.  The US has given Islamabad over US$25 billion to fight terrorism since the start of the War on Terror and is said to have lost patience with Pakistan’s unwillingness to go after insurgents. The Pentagon’s latest semi-annual report to Congress noted that ‘the Taliban-led insurgency and its al-Qaeda affiliates still operate with impunity from sanctuaries in Pakistan.’ Given this, the US has suspended almost one billion dollars of military aid to Pakistan as a sign of its displeasure.

Pakistan’s widely recognised “double game”, has seen the Taliban become stronger today than it was before the US “surge” of forces in 2009.  Moreover, the US is particularly concerned about the Haqqani network, said to be the most dangerous militant group fighting in Afghanistan. In September 2011, the US warned Pakistan that it must do more to cut ties with the network and help eliminate its leaders.

Pakistan has denied any links to the network, but many analysts believe that Pakistan is reluctant to target the Haqqanis and other militants based on its soil. It believes that they could prove useful allies after foreign forces withdraw from Afghanistan, especially in countering Indian influence.

Nevertheless, there are reasons to keep the relationship going. Pakistan is seen as a key factor in striking a peace deal with the Taliban and Afghanistan, which would allow the US to withdraw most of its troops by 2014. Indeed, Pakistan, using its Inter-Services Intelligence, may use its leverage to push the Taliban to negotiate with Washington and start a political dialogue with Kabul. So far, however, that hasn’t happened.

The US is therefore looking to other avenues to combat insurgents and stabilise Afghanistan. Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Panetta visited India and called for deeper defence ties between the two states. Panetta described India as the ‘linchpin’ of the Obama Administration’s pivot to Asia. He called on New Delhi to enhance its efforts in training and equipping Afghan defence forces. The US has been reticent about any Indian involvement in Afghanistan, for fear of angering Pakistan. Now, with what it views as Pakistan’s continued obstinacy, the US no longer feels obliged to tip-toe around Islamabad to find a solution in Afghanistan.

India can assist the US in training Afghan defence forces and strengthening its fledgling democracy. It can also call on a deep well of “soft power” in Afghanistan. In stark contrast to the US, India is widely perceived in Afghanistan as one of the most popular countries; as a result it can wield significant cultural and political influence. The convergence of India’s “soft power” and continued US “hard power”, could therefore herald a new strategic direction in Afghanistan in the coming decade.

At the very least, the latest US overtures toward India may well compel Pakistan to reconsider its current position and force it to encourage the Taliban to negotiate with Washington and Kabul. Should Pakistan prove unwilling, however, then the US has India and its soft power as a backup. It will increasingly look toward New Delhi, rather than Islamabad, for regional support in the coming decade.

This post first appeared on Future Directions International website on 20 June 2012

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