Thursday 11 Aug 2022 | 06:43 | SYDNEY
Thursday 11 Aug 2022 | 06:43 | SYDNEY

US-Pakistan relations in deep trouble


Michael Wesley


29 November 2011 09:19

I heard late on Saturday night about the NATO strike on a border post that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, as I stepped off a plane having spent a week in Pakistan. A week of talks in Pakistan had left me in no doubt that Pakistani-American relations are in deep, deep trouble.

One commentator told me that relations have never been worse, and that they are now locked into a downward spiral. Another observed that whereas Pakistan and America never trusted each other at a strategic level, they could collaborate effectively at a tactical/operational level. But events in 2011 have shattered even that tactical interoperability.

There are several causes of this breakdown which make patching things up so much harder.

At the level of geostrategy, Islamabad has watched a steady divergence of Pakistani and American interests. Washington's engagement with India is seen as reducing Pakistan to a minor role and destroying the strategic balance on the sub-continent.This has driven Pakistan's push for more nuclear weapons (including possibly battlefield nukes), further isolating it and garnering American ire.

Islamabad sees US engagement as self-interested and narrowly issue-specific — Afghanistan, nukes and terrorism — which makes it always nervous that Washington will suddenly abandon the relationship.

Other Pakistani observers regard the US relationship as toxic for Pakistan's stability. The US relationship poisons the popular legitimacy of any government, making it more dependent on US support, and ultimately perpetuating a cycle of coups and weak governments that prevents Pakistan developing strong democratic institutions. Many see American blunders in Afghanistan resulting in blowback against Pakistan.

At the popular level, opinion polls no longer show India as the greatest threat to Pakistan; now it is terrorism and the US. Most people I talked to remarked that the US 'just doesn't get Pakistan'. Pakistan is fighting a war alongside an ally that bombs Pakistan and cares little about the resulting civilian casualties. On top of this, despite over 5000 Pakistani casualties in the war against the militants, the US is constantly demanding that Pakistan do more. Finally, as the Osama bin Laden raid showed, this is an ally that doesn't trust Pakistan enough to tell it about raids on its own soil.

Perhaps most galling are Washington's calls on Pakistan to make friends with India and reconfigure its armed forces against the Taliban. Many in the Pakistani elite are convinced that the US is promoting a large Indian presence in Afghanistan in order to balance Pakistan's role there.

This is a set of trend lines that should worry our policy-makers. A dysfunctional US-Pakistan relationship increasingly complicates Australia's role in Afghanistan. In broader strategic terms, an increasingly toxic relationship reduces Washington's ability to mediate in a future Indo-Pakistan stand-off.

Australia has interests in Pakistan beyond Afghanistan, nukes and terrorism. To the Government's credit, it has supported a range of dialogues between Australia and Pakistan. I was in Pakistan last week as a guest of the Australian Government, to take part in a 1.5 track dialogue. Just this week, the Lowy Institute is hosting a dialogue between Australian and Pakistani legal specialists. We should be using our growing relationship with Pakistan to help mend the US-Pakistan relationship. This may require a few well-chosen words of advice to our closest ally.

Photo by Flickr user *Muhammad*.