Pak-US Relations under Obama, High Hopes, Great Disappointments

Pak-US Relations under Obama

Pakistan’s relations with the United States have deteriorated significantly in the final months of the Barack Obama presidency. Obama feels that foot-dragging by Pakistan has not helped him to deliver on his ambition to withdraw from the wars initiated by his predecessor George W. Bush. Islamabad, in Washington’s view, could have done more to eliminate the sanctuaries in Pakistan’s tribal areas from where militants have attacked Afghan troops, thus compelling the US to extend its stay beyond the timeline envisaged by President Obama. While Islamabad seems to have frustrated Washington for several reasons, those in charge of making policy in the United States don’t realise that the countries they are dealing with have their compulsions. They cannot accept America’s strategic interests as the final determinant of policymaking in foreign affairs.


Earlier this year, in Jeffrey Goldberg’s extended profile of President Barack Obama and his views on US foreign policy, Pakistan was barely mentioned, except for one striking reference. Goldberg wrote, “[Obama] privately questions why Pakistan, which he believes is a disastrously dysfunctional country, should be considered an ally of the US at all.”

Obama’s view is ironic, because he tried hard to strengthen Washington’s relations with Islamabad. The Obama administration came into office hoping to transform the relationship from a transactional, security-focused arrangement into a deeper, strategic partnership. His efforts, however, have largely proved unsuccessful.

Obama’s Pakistan policy was doomed by a fundamental reality of US-Pakistan relations: Security issues will always find a way to dominate the agenda, but the security interests of the two countries do not always align. Tensions are therefore inevitable. Pakistan’s unhappy reaction to killing of the Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mansour in a drone strike in Balochistan is just the latest example.

When Obama took office in 2009, he was keen to direct more attention to the war in Afghanistan, which he believed had been neglected by George W. Bush’s administration. That same year, Obama announced a troop surge in Afghanistan that deepened US engagement there and prompted the White House to intensify its focus on neighbouring Pakistan. The Obama administration hoped that by broadening its relationship with Pakistan, it could build the necessary trust to get Islamabad to help Washington achieve US goals next door.

To this end, also in 2009, Obama ratified an aid package that authorized $7.5 billion in civilian assistance to Pakistan over five years. This measure, known as the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Act for the senators who proposed and sponsored it, provided support to Pakistan’s energy, water, health and education sectors, among others, and was meant to strengthen civilian democracy—which had returned to Pakistan in 2008, following a nine-year period of military rule. Washington and Islamabad also established a new strategic dialogue series focused on issues covered by the new aid.

The relationship appeared poised to break new ground. At the opening session of the strategic dialogue in 2010, then-Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, declared “a new phase in our partnership, with a new focus and a renewed commitment to work together to achieve the goals we share.”

And yet it wasn’t meant to be, thanks to a concurrent effort by Washington to ramp up its covert security presence in Pakistan, setting the stage for a deep, extended crisis in relations.

Obama’s description of Pakistan as dysfunctional also perfectly characterizes its tortured ties with America.

In the post-9/11 years, Pakistan’s tribal areas, and especially North Waziristan, had become hotbeds for militancy. Terror groups of many stripes took refuge in this lawless region. When Obama came to power, he intensified the drone war—launched by his predecessor in 2004—to target these terrorists, many of them al-Qaeda and Pakistani Taliban figures that posed a threat to America and Pakistan alike. This covert war was facilitated by a sizeable CIA presence on an airbase in Balochistan, which was a launching spot for drones. Pakistan expert Anatol Lieven estimates that “hundreds of new CIA operatives” had entered the country by 2010.

Back in November 2008, just days after Obama was elected president, the Pakistani terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba, as Indians claim, attacked Mumbai, killing 164 people, including several Americans. As New York Times journalist Mark Mazzetti explained in his book “The Way of the Knife,” over the next few years Washington moved CIA spies in Pakistan’s tribal areas into urban spaces—and particularly in Punjab province, where Lashkar-e-Taiba is based — to gather information about the group.

In February 2011, one Punjab-based CIA operative, Raymond Davis, shot and killed two men on a busy street in broad daylight in the city of Lahore. The incident, and Davis’s subsequent arrest and release—as well as Obama’s initial refusal to admit that Davis was a spy—caused a huge uproar in Pakistan. Then, in May, US Special Forces raided Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad and killed him. In November, Nato warplanes accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. For all of 2011 and much of 2012, US-Pakistan relations were in a deep freeze.

Obama’s noble experiment to strengthen the relationship, once brimming with potential, had failed. Tellingly, in a Pew poll published in 2014, Obama’s favourability rating in Pakistan was just 7 percent—the lowest of the 44 countries surveyed.

Later in 2012, after the White House apologized for the deadly border strike, bilateral relations were somewhat stabilized. But by then, US combat troops in Afghanistan were headed for the exits. At the end of 2014, the US combat war was over. Consequently, Washington’s need for often-elusive Pakistani assistance—from access to supply routes, which Pakistan briefly shut down in retaliation for the border strike, to crackdowns on militant safe havens in North Waziristan, which didn’t begin in earnest until US troops were leaving Afghanistan—was less acute. As a result, Obama’s laser-like focus on Pakistan, firmly in place during the initial years of his presidency, has weakened significantly.

Two other geopolitical factors have redirected the White House’s strategic focus away from Pakistan over the past two years. One is Washington’s deepening relationship with India, which is driven as much by the personal chemistry between Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as by shared interests. The other is Obama’s strong desire to complete America’s gradual pivot to the Asia-Pacific. This Asia rebalance policy envisions close cooperation with India to counteract China’s influence in the region. Pakistan, India’s rival and a close ally of Beijing, is a virtual non-entity in this calculus.

This all helps explain why Washington refused to subsidize the sale of eight F-16s to Pakistan in April, and why a recent defence bill in the House of Representatives imposed heavy conditions on Pakistani military assistance. The message is clear: Pakistan’s strategic value has shrunk, and there’s no longer a need to treat Pakistan with kid gloves. This new mood is also evident in the White House’s growing impatience with Pakistan for not cracking down on militants on its soil that target Americans in Afghanistan. Mullah Mansour learned that the hard way.

Despite many tense moments during the Obama administration, US-Pakistan ties were never at risk of a full rupture. And that can be attributed to another fundamental reality of the relationship: Neither side is willing to let the other go, despite seemingly irrevocable differences. It’s the diplomatic equivalent of a lousy marriage. Pakistan depends heavily on US military assistance, while America is keen to remain on the good side of a militancy-ravaged, nuclear-armed nation. To be sure, there are also genuine areas of cooperation—from shared interests in combating the rising threat of the self-proclaimed Islamic State to successful soft diplomacy like educational exchanges. In effect, a combination of dependency, fear and some convergent interests help salvage a relationship that could otherwise fall apart.

Obama’s description of Pakistan as dysfunctional also perfectly characterizes its tortured ties with America. And yet, even with so many problems, both Pakistan and the US manage to hold it all together and stay afloat.

Courtesy: World Politics Review

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