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An Airstrike, a Doctor, and Amateurism; Current Issues in US-Pakistan Relations

By: Martin Sigalow

Through a combination of tactical and strategic missteps, United States-Pakistan relations have been driven to a historic low by both parties. This paper will explore these missteps in detail.

Deteriorating US-Pakistan relations could massively complicate US Afghani counterterrorism operations. The US needs a friendly Pakistan at least until US troops are finally removed from Afghanistan in 2014. Pakistan land routes are geographically optimal for the purpose of transporting supplies in and out of Afghanistan without incurring unnecessarily high costs for munitions transport. Going through Pakistan on land is less expensive than the next best transportation option by two or three orders of magnitude since other routes require a circuitous path that combines sea, rail, and ground coordination.[1] As the 2014 troop deadline nears, the US will need to remove supplies and troops from Afghanistan quickly and efficiently which is necessary to reduce the operational cost of our war effort.[2]

Predator drone strikes will not be covered by this note, for at least two reasons. First, drones have been a reality in Pakistan for at least eight years now.[3] Any impact these strikes have on relations is no longer truly newsworthy, although media sources continue to froth at the mouth after each individual drone strike (for instance, this article[4]). Second, this issue has been beaten to death by the global media for years. Similar reasons apply to not speaking of the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound.

The first recent strain on relations is Pakistan’s continuing closure of the two NATO supply routes to Afghanistan in “retaliation” for the deaths of 24 of their troops, at the hands of NATO aircraft last year. On November 26, 2011, a joint Afghani-US Special Operations forces coalition engaged in a nighttime search for Taliban members along the lawless Pakistan/Afghanistan Border came under fire from unknown forces. Although the coalition justifiably believed militants were firing at them (and called in NATO air support), the shots actually came from Pakistani forces at the Salala security outpost. The outpost had fired at the area because they detected “suspicious activity.”[5]  That the Pakistani outpost fired first is uncontroversial; the Pakistani government confirmed that their troops fired flares, mortars, and machine guns prior to the NATO attack.

The damage to relations between the US and Pakistan was certainly tangible. First, the strike was embarrassing for the Pakistani military. Not only was the Pakistani army functionally lit up, with minimal resistance,[6] the Pakistani military was consulted before the attack and gave express permission for the strike because they thought they had no troops in the area.[7]  Second, although Pakistan clearly fired first, the government claimed that the NATO attack was unprovoked and a violation of sovereignty, inciting international press coverage.[8] Third, although there is no longer dispute about whether the routes will reopen, there is continuous bickering over prices that the US will have to pay per convoy. Pakistan was insisting at one point on about $5,000 per convoy, a 20 fold increase from before this incident.[9] Sparks continue to fly, as US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta verbally indicated that the White House was adamant it would not be “gouged” by Pakistan for these transports.[10]

The second recent strain on relations is that Dr. Shakil Afridi, who provided data instrumental for the US to find Osama Bin Laden’s hidden compound, was recently convicted of a 33 year prison sentence in Pakistan’s tribal court system. This, predictably, angered the US, undermining the US Pakistani relationship even further.[11] Afiridi helped US intelligence groups track down Bin Laden by administering a fake vaccination program in the area close to the compound.[12] Although the original plan, to get DNA samples of people on site, fell through, Afridi was able to provide crucial information that led to confirmation of Bin Laden’s presence.[13] The case is currently in the very early stages of an appeal.[14]

Pakistan’s handling of the publicity of this trial has been quite bizarre. The first justification officials released was that Afridi had been convicted of working with the CIA, although the tribal court Afridi was tried in did not have the jurisdiction to levy that charge.[15] When the US showed visible contempt for this justification, officials then changed the story to conviction of “womanizing” and corruption.[16] However, when official court documents were released, it was clear that Afridi was actually convicted of helping local militant organizations, a charge often levied in Pakistani courts.[17] This charge switching seemed to be hopeless attempts to gain popularity with the Pakistani people, with no end goal in mind.

The common thread running through these two scenarios is that neither the US nor Pakistan truly seems to have a coherent picture of what it wants or needs from the other, let alone how to act based upon that picture. Absent internally consistent foreign policy frameworks, Pakistan and the United States have consistently executed disjointed, ad hoc approaches to issues that have come up between them.

The Pakistani government is clearly deathly afraid of both the United States government and the Pakistani masses. Its attempts to appease these groups have made them a paragon of uselessness and mistrust for both. Widespread anti-appeasement feelings have turned the government into a US stooge in the eyes of the people, most of whom can’t stand US power and influence in their country.[18] The US is suspicious about Pakistan’s aims and is unimpressed with government actions to fight terrorism; the fact that the most wanted terrorist in the world was in a compound a two hour drive from Islamabad for years despite Pakistani cooperation has not escaped US officials.[19] Pakistan is embracing a paradoxical commitment to facilitate American foreign policy and simultaneously express the views of a populace opposed to that foreign policy. Pakistani conviction of Dr. Afridi and hopeless selective offering of justifications for conviction makes one: what is it that Pakistanis were hoping to achieve? They have succeeded only in looking incompetent to every actor involved.

Recent White House policy toward Pakistan has been a disastrous patchwork of occasional assurances punctuated by gratuitous force. Two other issues come to mind that demonstrate this. Firstly, the US has expressed dismay at Pakistan for its numerous mistakes, and yet the government continues to award massive foreign aid packages to Pakistan (specifically, the US just agreed to pay Pakistan upwards of one billion dollars).[20] The US seems to committed to signaling a alternating mix of harshness and beneficence. Secondly, the US is trying to court Pakistan and its hated rival India for Afghan war help simultaneously.[21] As the US tries to repair the aforementioned delicate issues, it has chosen at the same time to bolster its strategic friendship with a country that is hated in Pakistan. Pakistan is especially worried of India operations in Afghanistan because it means an enemy on both borders.[22]

Issues like these will only recur consistently if the US and Pakistan continue to execute a patchwork and inoperable foreign policy. Any upward trend in relations that occurs as a result of a short term boon will merely be in the upswing of a relations pattern that will eventually and inevitably trend downward. If the United States values its “friend” in South Asia, it must deal with its central policy framework and must cease wasting time and energy dealing with problems spawned inevitably as a result of that framework. Absent this, the Obama administration will continue to see its accord with Pakistan oscillate like a sine wave, committed the two countries to bouts of frequent ups and downs.[23]

Pakistan and the US have been acting like a couple at a middle school party; with no one really knowing what they are supposed to do, they awkwardly alternate between macho, timid, and hurt while avoiding eye contact. We can only hope that this pair correctly learns how to dance.

Martin Sigalow is a rising sophomore at Emory University. He is pursuing a double major in Economics and Philosophy. Martin is a college debater and high school debate coach. His international affairs interests include US relations with divergent countries, global women’s rights issues, and the structure of the global foreign policy arena.


[1] Gearan, Anne, “Obama Snubs Pakistan Head over Supply Routes,” Associated Press – National Security, May 21, 2012, accessed June 4, 2012, http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5iIUevNNr8-9WZzc97fWBKaDVMHtg?docId=366eba9fa6014ba680e21dbe4b5dfb7d

[2] Kazim, Hasnain, and Spörl, Gerhard, “Relations Remain Icy Between Pakistan and the US,” Spiegel Online International, May 10, 2012, accessed June 2, 2012, http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/tense-relationship-between-the-us-and-pakistan-since-bin-laden-death-a-832291.html

[3] Drones team “The Bush Years: Pakistan Strikes 2004 – 2009” The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, August 10, 2011, accessed June 4, 2012, http://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/2011/08/10/the-bush-years-2004-2009/

[4]Nauman, Qasim,   “Pakistan Condemns U.S. Drone Strikes,” Chicago Tribune, June 4, 2012, accessed June 4, 2012, http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/sns-rt-us-pakistan-usa-dronesbre8530ms-20120604,0,4969247.story

[5] DeYoung, Karen and Partlow , Joshua, “Afghans say Commando Unit was Attacked Before Airstrike was Called on Pakistan,” Washington Post, November 28, 2011, accessed June 1, 2012. http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/afghans-say-unit-was-attacked-before-airstrike/2011/11/28/gIQAX6ZY5N_story.html?hpid=z1

[6] Ryan, Missy and Hosenball, Mark, “Corrected: U.S. Military Trickles back into Western Pakistan,” Reuters, May 31, 2012, accessed June 1, 2012, http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/05/31/us-usa-pakistan-trainers-idUSBRE84U0Y820120531

[7] Barnes, Julian and Entous, Adam, “Pakistan Was Consulted Before Fatal Hit, U.S. Says,” Wall Street Journal, December 2, 2011, accessed June 1, 2012, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203833104577072771910500442.html?mod=googlenews_wsj

[8]Reuters, “Pakistan Allows Army to Counter-Attack Nato,” Reuters, December 2, 2011, accessed June 1, 2012, http://www.emirates247.com/news/world/pakistan-allows-army-to-counter-attack-nato-2011-12-02-1.431083

[9] Dawar, Rasool, “Pakistan: US Missiles Kill 5 Militants in NW” Time, May 28, 2012, accessed May 30, 2012, http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2115882,00.html

[10] The News, “Relations with Pak Most Complicated ever,” The News – International, May 28, 2012, accessed May 31, 2012, http://www.thenews.com.pk/article-51269-Relationship-with-Pakistan-%20one-of-the-most-complicated-we%20ve-had%20:-US-Defence-Secretary-

[11] Goodman, Lee-Ann, “Panetta: U.S.-Pakistan Ties ‘Most Complicated’” Metro News May 27, 2012, accessed May 30, 2012, http://metronews.ca/news/world/239657/panetta-u-s-pakistan-ties-most-complicated/

[12] Innocent, Malou, “U.S.-Pakistan Relations: The Afridi Affair and Its Aftermath,” Cato-at-Liberty, May 25, 2012, accessed May 30, 2012, http://www.cato-at-liberty.org/u-s-pakistan-relations-the-afridi-affair-and-its-aftermath/

[13]Curtis, Lisa, “Pakistan Takes Short-sighted Approach to Relations with the U.S.” Heritage – the Foundry, May 30, 2012, accessed May 30, 2012, http://blog.heritage.org/2012/05/30/pakistan-takes-short-sighted-approach-to-relations-with-the-u-s/

[14] Associated Press, “Shakil Afridi Trial: Lawyer Files Appeal For Pakistani Doctor In Bin Laden Hunt,” Associated Press, June 1, 2012, accessed June 1, 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/01/shakil-afridi-trial-lawye_n_1563291.html

[15] Ibid

[16] Ibid

[17] Ibid

[18] Georgy, Michael, “Pakistan and U.S.: Allies Without Trust,” Chicago Tribune, June 3, 2012, accessed June 4, 2012, http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2012-06-03/news/sns-rt-us-pakistan-usabre85303j-20120603_1_pakistani-soldiers-pakistani-ambassador-maleeha-lodhi

[19] Ibid

[20] Iqbal, Anwar, “US Agrees to Pay Pakistan $1.18b of Coalition Support Fund Arrears,” Daily News, June 4, 2012, accessed June 4, 2012, http://india.nydailynews.com/newsarticle/508c2d2dc0bd926cff81f5320b207a9e/us-agrees-to-pay-pakistan-1-18b-of-coalition-support-fund-arrears

[21] Ackerman, Spencer, “U.S. Cozies Up to Pakistan’s Archrival for Afghan War,” Wired, June 5, 2012, accessed June 5, 2012, http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2012/06/india-afghanistan/

[22] Ibid

[23] Beibei, Huang (黄蓓蓓), and Zhang, Hongyu (张洪宇) “Pakistan-U.S. Relations Worsen: British Think Tank,” Xinhua News, May 26, 2016, accessed May 30, 2012, http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/90777/7827706.html

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