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'Hard Questions' Remain In U.S.-Pakistan Relations

Jul 11, 2012
Originally published on July 11, 2012 4:45 am

A U.S. operation in the mountains near Afghanistan last November killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. Pakistan wanted an apology. The U.S. refused. In response, Pakistan shut down supply routes to Afghanistan for NATO convoys.

After intense talks, two border crossings were reopened last week to convoys for the U.S. and NATO forces.

Pakistan's ambassador in Washington, Sherry Rehman, was at the center of the negotiations. Afterward she called it a moment of great opportunity for the two countries.

"Now that it's resolved to both sides' satisfaction, I would think that we could use this time and space to build on convergences," she said. "There are many differences that we have been able to narrow in the last few months."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was also involved in the negotiations, was more candid about the "hard questions," as she put it, that remain between the U.S. and Pakistan. "I said many times that this is a challenging but essential relationship," she said. "It remains so, and I have ... no reason to believe that it will not continue to raise hard questions for us both."

Analysts in Pakistan have their doubts that things between Pakistan and the U.S. will now turn rosy.

"Is it going to open up avenues for improvement, greater improvement in relations?" Ayesha Siddiqa said. "I'm a bit skeptical."

There are several hard questions that have been impossible to resolve.

One is the U.S. drone attacks against militants inside Pakistan. The Pakistani government says it wants them to stop, although it is widely believed that the government really wants access to the intelligence the CIA uses to choose targets.

Pakistanis of all stripes hate the drone attacks, retired Lt. Gen. Saleem Haider said.

"You can't undertake unilateral attacks on Pakistan's soil and say that you are friends of Pakistan and you will be a non-NATO ally," he said. "There's a contradiction in this."

Even more difficult is the issue of the Haqqani network, a pro-Taliban, pro-al-Qaida insurgent group that finds sanctuary in northwest Pakistan and crosses the border freely to attack U.S. and NATO forces.

The U.S. believes the group is essentially a subsidiary of Pakistani intelligence.

This problem cannot be resolved to the satisfaction of the U.S., Siddiqa said. "Here is an issue of strategic divergence," she said. "The Pakistani government does not want to pursue and kill Haqqani and his network — simple as that."

In Pakistan these divergences with the U.S. are deeply felt, and they've given rise to intense anti-Americanism, evident at a protest of thousands this week and a march from Lahore to Islamabad. In Lahore a few days ago, many slogans and banners called for closing the border to NATO resupply convoys once again and for jihad against the U.S.

There is also deep suspicion here that Pakistan's government is colluding with the Americans. Pakistanis believe there is public posturing while something else goes on in private.

"Most Pakistanis are clear that the Americans do what they do in and around this country, not in spite of the Pakistani leadership, but with the consent of the Pakistani leadership," said Aasim Sajjad, a professor of history at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad.

Sajjad said he believes that under these circumstances, the U.S. will always have the upper hand.

One senior American official says this is a "relationship that really matters," and that military and intelligence cooperation need real improvement.

Whether the two sides are capable of pulling that off is another of those hard questions.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

OK, let's go from a poisonous and divisive domestic issue, to an equally intractable issue overseas. It's the troubled U.S. relationship with Pakistan. Things got a little better last week. Pakistan reopened the route through its territory that is used to supply U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. That prompted speculation about fixing the other constant irritants in a vital partnership. NPR's Mike Shuster reports from Islamabad.

MIKE SHUSTER, BYLINE: Pakistan closed its border to NATO re-supply trucks because a U.S. operation in the mountains close to Afghanistan last November, killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. Pakistan wanted an apology; the U.S. refused, so Pakistan shut down the re-supply operation. Last week after intense talks, two border crossings were reopened. Pakistan's ambassador in Washington, Sherry Rehman, was at the center of the negotiations. And afterward, she called it a moment of great opportunity for the two nations.

SHERRY REHMAN: Now that it's resolved to both sides' satisfaction, I would think that we could use this time and space to build on convergences. There are many differences that we have been able to narrow in the last few months.

SHUSTER: Secretary of State Clinton, who also was at the center of the negotiations, was more candid about the hard questions, as she put it, that remain.

SECRETARY HILLARY CLINTON: I've said many times that this is a challenging but essential relationship. It remains so, and I have no - no reason to believe it will not continue to raise hard questions for us both.

SHUSTER: There are several hard questions, at the moment, that have been impossible to resolve. One is the U.S. drone attacks against militant units inside Pakistan. The Pakistani government says it wants them to stop, although it's widely believed the government really wants access to the intelligence the CIA uses to choose targets for the missiles the drones carry. Pakistanis of all stripes hate the drone attacks, says retired lieutenant general Saleem Haider.

SALEEM HAIDER: You can't undertake unilateral attacks on Pakistan's soil, and say that you are friends of Pakistan and you were the non-NATO ally; and there's a contradiction in this.

SHUSTER: Even more difficult is the issue of the Haqqani network, a pro-Taliban and pro-al-Qaida insurgent group that finds sanctuary in northwest Pakistan, and crosses the border freely to attack U.S. and NATO forces. The U.S. believes this group is essentially a subsidiary of Pakistani intelligence. This problem cannot be resolved to the satisfaction of the U.S., says Pakistani analyst Ayesha Siddiqa.

AYESHA SIDDIQA: Here is an issue of strategic divergence. I mean, we don't want - the Pakistani government does not want to pursue and kill Haqqani and his network - simple as that.

SHUSTER: Here in Pakistan, these divergences are deeply felt, and they've given rise to intense anti-Americanism. Witness a protest of thousands this week, and a march from Lahore to Islamabad. In Lahore a few days ago, many protesters called for closing the border to NATO re-supply convoys once again, and for jihad against the U.S.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS CHANTING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through translator) We believe that the NATO supplies are against the interests of Pakistan; against the interests of the Muslims, and against the interests of Islam; and against the interests of Afghanistan, also.

SHUSTER: At the same time, there is deep suspicion here that Pakistan's government is actually colluding with the Americans. Pakistanis believe there is public posturing and then, there is something else that goes on in private, notes Aasim Sajjad, professor of history at Quaid-i-Azam University here in Islamabad.

AASIM SAJJAD: Most Pakistanis are clear that, you know, the Americans do what they do in and around this country, not in spite of the Pakistani leadership, but with the consent of the Pakistani leadership.

SHUSTER: Sajjad believes under these circumstances, the U.S. will always have the upper hand. One senior American official says this is a relationship that really matters. Military and intelligence cooperation need real reinvigoration. Whether the two sides are capable of bringing that off, is another of those hard questions.

SHUSTER: Mike Shuster, NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.