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High-Level U.S. Visit Highlights Pakistani Disagreements

  • Abubakar Siddique

Pakistan argues that U.S. strikes in the lawless tribal districts are "counterproductive."

Pakistan argues that U.S. strikes in the lawless tribal districts are "counterproductive."

Despite public pledges to closely coordinate their efforts in the fight against Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants, Pakistani and U.S. officials seem increasingly at odds on how to move forward in their struggle against extremism.

Disagreements resurfaced during the visit this week to Afghanistan and Pakistan by U.S. Admiral Mike Mullen and U.S. regional envoy Richard Holbrooke.

While Mullen and Holbrooke are now in the Indian capital, Pakistani media are still debating their visit, with some claiming that the tough stance taken by Islamabad on U.S. military operations on its territory came as a "rude shock" to the U.S. delegation.

In a press conference on April 7 in Islamabad, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said no "to foreign boots on Pakistani soil," declaring it a "red line" issue that Washington also recognized.

But Qureshi said Pakistani officials couldn't convince the U.S. administration to stop attacks by unmanned drones in Pakistan.

In fact, "The New York Times" reported on April 6 that the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama intends to expand drone attacks inside Pakistan because they are considered an effective tactic against alleged Taliban and Al-Qaeda leaders.

Taking A Firmer Line

But Islamabad views them as "counterproductive," arguing that they further fuel extremism by sharpening anti-American sentiments and that they violate Pakistan's sovereignty.

In Islamabad, Qureshi again highlighted the issue as a key disagreement between Islamabad and Washington. "We did talk about drones and -- let me be very frank -- there's a gap," he told journalists. "There's a gap between us and them, and I want to bridge that gap and will continue to talk about it when we meet in Washington."

Pakistan's Shah Mehmood Qureshi (right) with Richard Holbrooke
Farzana Shaikh, a South Asia specialist at the Chatham House think tank in London, says that despite the tough talk, there is some evidence that until now the drone attacks have been taking place "with the connivance and the complicity of the Pakistani government and sections of the military and security establishment."

Shaikh says the trust deficit between Washington and Islamabad is nothing new and public knowledge. But the new development is that "the Americans are tightening the screws" on Pakistan. And the Pakistanis, she says, "are resisting."

"There is something new going on here. And while many have tried to draw attention to the fact that what is new is Pakistan taking a stern line with the United States," Shaikh says. "I actually think that it's probably the opposite. I think, the United States now is taking a much firmer line with Pakistan."

In contrast to the policies of the Bush administration, which was seen as heavily reliant on General Pervez Musharraf as its key ally in the war on terror, the Obama administration has indicated that its policy will focus on supporting Pakistan's fragile democratic institutions. And it will tie future U.S. aid to Islamabad's performance against extremist militants.

The India Issue

But there is a risk that expanded drone attacks could energize the opposition -- against Washington's policies.

Some Pakistani opposition parties are already highlighting the drone attacks as a key national issue. They argue that the new U.S. strategy works to the advantage of archrival India.

During his visit, the U.S. envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, urged Pakistanis to see Islamist extremists as their primary security challenge.

"We believe that Pakistan's interests and American interests run in parallel, and that the United States and Pakistan face a common strategic threat, a common enemy and a common challenge, and therefore a common task," he told journalists in Islamabad.

But Shaikh says it will take a "generational" struggle to convince Pakistani military and majority public opinion that the Islamist militants -- rather than India -- are Pakistan's primary enemy. Since their independence from the British Empire in 1947, Islamabad and New Delhi have fought three wars over the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir.

"Fundamentally the political fortunes of the Pakistani military have rested on the conflict with India," Shaikh says. "I cannot see the military in Pakistan being prepared to voluntarily commit political suicide. It simply is not, I think, a viable strategy as far as the military is concerned."

While Holbrooke has indicated that his mandate does not include any role in addressing the Kashmir dispute, he has urged Pakistan and India to take bilateral steps to resolve it. In New Delhi he urged the South Asian rivals to focus on Islamist militants as a key threat to regional stability. "For the first time since partition, India, Pakistan, and the United States face a common threat, a common challenge, a common task," he said.

But reports from India suggest that New Delhi is concerned over the failure of Obama's new strategy to address its grievances about Islamabad's backing of militants. New Delhi is skeptical of renewed U.S. civilian and military aid to Pakistan.

Meanwhile, in Pakistan, scores of Taliban have moved into the Buner district from neighboring Swat Valley where authorities struck a peace pact in February aimed at ending violence. Buner is closer to Islamabad and the development is likely to deepen U.S. concerns about the increasing influence of Islamist militants in Pakistan.