Shadow-boxing with drones and terrorism

Islamabad will continue to have a blow-hot, blow-cold relationship with Washington

November 10, 2012 12:36 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:40 pm IST

A bad marriage, which both partners have no choice but to plod through

With little difference in the positions of President Obama and Mitt Romney towards AfPak in general and Pakistan in particular, there was never an expectation that the election, irrespective of the winner, would improve the course of the relations between the two countries. That much was clear from the last presidential debate on foreign policy when Mr. Romney essentially articulated the current U.S. policy towards Pakistan, only using different words.

Yet, Pakistan emerged as the only country to prefer the Republican candidate over Mr. Obama among the 21 countries surveyed for a poll conducted for BBC World Service. While 14 per cent of the respondents in Pakistan wanted to see a Romney White House over the 11 per cent who wanted Mr. Obama, 75 per cent expressed no opinion, indicative of the widely held view that status quo would prevail whatever the result.

Though the two governments are working hard to put their blow hot and cold bilateral relationship back on track after it went into deep freeze for seven months following the 2010 NATO bombardment of a Pakistan Army outpost in Bajaur tribal agency killing 24 soldiers, they have failed to cap the anti-Americanism whipped up over the years. It maintained an upward trajectory right through the Obama years, and is still rising.

On Kashmir

For Pakistan, Mr. Obama’s first stint was a series of disappointments starting from his reneging on the 2008 election promise of “devoting serious diplomatic resources to get a special envoy in [Kashmir] to figure out a plausible approach.” The subsequent years saw him shift to non-interference in Kashmir, billing it a bilateral matter.

If this was not disappointing enough for Pakistan, there was the hyphenation with Afghanistan in place of his original proposal to have a special envoy for Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. It needled Islamabad even more because India had managed to work its way out of that formulation and decouple from the India-Pakistan prism through which the U.S. had previously crafted policies towards New Delhi.

Though the India’s dehyphenation from Pakistan had begun before Mr. Obama took charge, the appointment of a Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan gave currency to the AfPak coinage.

Worst of all, in Pakistan’s view, was the U.S. push for India to assume the role of a regional power.

While all this is of interest to foreign policy wonks, on the streets Mr. Obama has become synonymous with drones and is the man who violated Pakistan’s sovereignty even further by sending in Navy Seals to kill al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in the heart of the country. The Obama years have seen drone attacks multiply, making it a major irritant in bilateral relations.

And, he is unlikely to budge unless Pakistan goes after terrorist havens in the tribal areas, especially North Waziristan now regarded by Washington as “terror central.”

Pakistan has for years warded off pressure to “do more” in North Waziristan, particularly against the Haqqani network which the U.S. holds responsible for many of the attacks inside Afghanistan. Now, with NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan imminent, Islamabad is unlikely to shift policy and risk losing its influence in Kabul in the post-2014 scenario by antagonising the Afghan Taliban. As things stand, “four more years” for Mr. Obama could see more of the usual bickering that goes on in a bad marriage that neither can afford to walk out from at this juncture.

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