The U.S. hopes that renewed engagement with Pakistan over the next few weeks will put their chronically uneasy ties back on track.

As the U.S. and Pakistan attempt to mend their troubled relationship — historically premised more on convenience and strategic interests rather than mutual respect and understanding — Islamabad is apparently using the opportunity to draw new redlines for the Americans on this side of the Durand Line.

This applies in particular to the Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) presence in the country; an issue prised open in January when an operative of America's undercover service, Raymond Davis, was caught by Pakistan for gunning down two natives in “self-defence.” Apparently, the two Pakistanis were sleuths shadowing Davis who was trying to penetrate the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT).

The furore over the incident brought the extent of the CIA's undercover operation in Pakistan under the scanner. The level of anger over American presence in the region and the adverse effect of the war on terror on Pakistan made it easy for the authorities to deflect attention from how these intelligence operatives got in here and why they went unnoticed, to what they were doing here.

When Davis was released after a month-and-a-half in prison on payment of blood money to the victims' families, it was given to understand that the deal was struck only after Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) worked out new terms of engagement with the CIA. But matters came to a head once again within 24 hours when CIA-manned drones pounded a compound in North Waziristan; killing nearly 40 tribesmen.

The Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Parvez Kayani made a rare public statement; maintaining that “such acts of violence take us away from our objective of elimination of terrorism. It is imperative to understand that this critical objective can not be sacrificed for temporary tactical gains.”

Revisiting the fundamentals

And, the Foreign Office called for revisiting the fundamentals of the bilateral relationship. “It was for the White House and the State Department to hold back those who have been trying to veer Pakistan-US relationship away from the track,” the Foreign Office said. Pakistan also pulled out of the trilateral meeting — already rescheduled by the U.S. over the Davis stand-off — between Afghanistan-Pakistan-U.S. in Brussels.

An apology was sought from the U.S. but that was late in coming and as in the Davis case, the American high-handedness was stark. In fact, to most Pakistanis, the drone attack in Datta Khel on March 17 looked like the Americans indulging in celebratory fire on the release of Davis.

Just how much the blow-hot-blow-cold relationship had soured in the past couple of months was evident when U. S. Ambassador in Pakistan Cameron Munter called for “renewal” of ties this Monday in a public talk that was billed by the embassy as a “major policy speech.”

The drift of his speech was that the two countries need to move forward; “speak of opportunities in the future, not of problems of the past.” But, not many in the audience were impressed and some told him so; demanding, instead, clear answers on questions like when would the drone strikes stop, when would the U.S. stop talking down to Pakistan, when would Washington stop working at cross-purposes with Islamabad, and why America was being so insensitive to Pakistan's Catch-22 situation.

No straight answers were expected but the anger of those who question U.S. policy towards Pakistan and the dismay of the advocates for better bilateral relations at America's ham-handedness was palpable. Given the number of times the U.S. has cut off both military and economic aid in the past over differences with Pakistan, the gathering was not taken in by the Ambassador's bid to win hearts with details of U.S. money that is going into various developmental programmes across the country.

In fact, the Director-General of the Foreign Office-backed Institute of Strategic Studies and host of the public talk, Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, himself articulated this sentiment with comments like the relationship is far from healthy despite the long association and is seen as a “utilitarian and transactional” relationship instead of an enduring one because it is essentially elite-to-elite and not people-to-people. But, he admitted that this was the most important bilateral relationship for Pakistan.

Either by design or default, this public interface between a Foreign Office-funded institution and the American Embassy took place hours before ISI's Director General Shuja Pasha was to meet CIA Director Leon Panetta in the U.S. Media reports from Washington suggested that key issues remained unresolved even as The New York Times reported that Gen. Kayani had “demanded that the U.S. steeply reduce the number of CIA operatives and Special Operations forces working in Pakistan, and that it halt CIA drone strikes aimed at militants in north west Pakistan.”

Security establishment upset

Indicating a willingness to consider a drawdown in Special Operations forces, the U.S. replied with a drone attack two days after the meeting. Pakistan responded with words — maintaining that drone attacks had become “a core irritant” in the counter-terror campaign.

While there is a view within Pakistan that the security establishment is upset because the CIA — through operatives and drone attacks — was targeting terrorist groups that are seen as strategic assets of the deep state, the mainstream narrative is that they are counter-productive and violate sovereignty. Also, according to Pakistani security analysts, both countries desire the same end — wiping out of terrorism — but differ on the means.

Though the General Officer Commanding 7-Division Ghayur Mehmood — who is in charge of troops in North Waziristan — had recently admitted that a majority of those killed by the drones were hardcore terrorists, the widely held conviction is that civilians are killed in these strikes. In the tribal region, this leads to anger and, in turn, a need to avenge; thereby spawning more terrorists.

Critical though it is of the drone policy, Pakistan has been repeatedly asking the U.S. to transfer the technology to Islamabad so that Predator strikes are conducted under the national flag. How that would make a difference is not explained even as the Government has to reckon with the WikiLeaks disclosure that the drone attacks have Islamabad's tacit support.

Another irritant is the perception that the U.S. can “cut-and-run” whenever it wants and Pakistan would have to bear the effects of this war long after just like after the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. So, Islamabad is bargaining for more say in the “endgame” in Afghanistan to ensure that a pro-Pakistan government is in place in Kabul after the occupation forces leave.

Writing in ‘Foreign Policy' in the midst of the Davis stand-off, South Asia programme associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars Michael Kugelman said: “It would be a mistake to assume the U.S.-Pakistan relationship was plunged into crisis only after Davis pulled the trigger, and that it will remain so only as long as he languishes in his jail cell. In reality, the Davis affair represents just the latest chapter in a lengthening narrative — one of an unraveling partnership that some fear could rupture completely. The ongoing U.S.-Pakistan struggles are often attributed to a mere trust gap, easily surmountable if each side convinces the other of its good intentions. Unfortunately, mutual suspicions are too historically ingrained simply to be wished away with soothing words.”

Economic assistance, India

And, neither can money buy affection. The U.S. may have been the most active — physically and financially — in helping Pakistan deal with last year's devastating floods, but this coupled with the economic assistance that is coming from Washington has not melted hearts here. Most Pakistanis see it as only a fraction of the price the country has had to pay for fighting America's war. Another apprehension fast gaining currency is that the U.S. wants to weaken Pakistan to get its nuclear power for fear of it falling into terrorists' hands.

Conspiracy theories abound but sources close to the security establishment maintain the Davis chapter in bilateral links has brought in more changes than the Americans are willing to admit. A major shift — at least from the Indian perspective — is Pakistan's reluctance for third party intervention in resolving issues with India. Asked if the U.S. had any role in the resumption of the India-Pakistan dialogue, Foreign Office spokesperson was categorical in stating that Pakistan believes “we do not need a third country for us to take ownership of our own affairs.”

Public posturing?

Some believe the tough position vis-à-vis the U.S. is only public posturing and that Pakistan would fall in line with Washington's demands but for now Islamabad has got the Americans and its allies to acknowledge repeatedly that this country has lost more lives in the war on terror than the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation-led International Security Assistance Force stationed in Afghanistan.

In fact, according to the Americans, the “do more” mantra — something that needles Pakistan no end — does not mean Islamabad is not doing anything against terrorist havens in its tribal belt along the border with Afghanistan. “These reports [the White House quarterly report on Afghanistan and Pakistan being the latest] are an assessment of the ground situation. We admire what the Pakistani military is doing and the sacrifices it has made,” was Mr. Munter's response to why Washington keeps chanting “do more.”

Refusing to publicly subscribe to the diagnosis that bilateral relations are in ‘Intensive Care,' the Americans are hoping that the renewed engagement over the next few weeks — including a possible visit of President Asif Ali Zardari to Washington — will put this chronically uneasy relationship back on track. The drones notwithstanding, the Americans look more eager; preparing as they are for a troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. And, Islamabad's support is critical in bringing a semblance of order to the mess created in Afghanistan by the 1980s U.S.-Pakistan marriage of convenience.

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