Pak US Defence Relations: Forever on Edge

The US Pakistan defence relations remain forever on an edge. This was evident during the recent visit of American Defence Secretary Mr Robert Gates to Islamabad. Much as Gates tried to woo his hosts to launch operations in North Waziristan and extend the same against the Afghan Taliban, Pakistani political leaders egged by the military commanders succeeded in rebuffing him in full measure. This once again underlined the friction in Pak US defence relations which is not new.

US and Pak military relations are multi faceted. These have developed over the years with Pakistan having been part of the US pacts in the region such as the CENTO in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Later the relationship was strengthened during the 1980’s after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, when Pakistan became the front line state in the Mujahideen operations. There was a break thereafter with the US abandoning Afghanistan, the nuclear issue looming large while Pakistan nursed this and other grievances such as denial of F 16 fighters. Today again with the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan, Pakistan is central to US plans and defence relations have grown with promises of surveillance drones being made by Gates recently.

Yet there are many issues which remain contentious. Pakistan's tribal areas serving as the base of operations for Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan, U.S. covert military operations inside Pakistan along the Afghan border including possible ground raids by U.S. Special Operations Forces, Pakistan's political instability, Islamabad's questionable record on terrorism and Indo Pakistan relations post Mumbai are some of the issues of concern between the two countries. The delay in supply of weapons and equipment on various accounts, security of nuclear weapons in Pakistan and so on are other issues.

Bridge building between the US and Pakistan military continues even though there is concern over US drone attacks and in Pakistan primarily over sovereignty where the Army feels very strongly against any efforts by the US special forces in particular to engage the forces on their side of the Durand Line, there were some reports of such incidents some time back.

The US outreach by the Defence Department seems to be limited in scope because of lack of coordination with the State Department as the Black Water issue shows. The typical bureaucratese where the US Defence Secretary denied using Black Water, while the State department has been using the agency along with the Pakistani counter part indicates lack of coordination between the two arms of the US government. As the Black Water employment in Pakistan and also the attendant local agency hired by Black Water is a major concern in the country, the US would also have to address these issues holistically in the days ahead.

The larger US Pakistan relationship is also build on the survival of Mr Zardari as the Pakistani President whose legal problems against the NRO are likely to weaken the government’s response to various critical issues including security and countering terrorism. While the spate of attacks has been reduced for the time being, the strikes in Karachi and the violence is continuing in internecine clashes, it is obvious that there is limited attention to control of these incidents with the top leadership continuing its efforts to consolidate its position against the Supreme Court verdict.

As Mr Zardari enjoys a pro US image and some even say was strongly supported by the US, his political survival will remain crucial for sustenance of the US Pakistan relationship. This is a complex arrangement as there are media reports of right wing support in the judiciary as well and many Supreme Court judges accused of being against the interests of the PPP and silent supporters of the PML N and other right wing parties. Thus there is a political element which may finally decide who comes to power in Pakistan with the courts having a deciding vote. That is the irony of democracy in Islamabad as it continues to be controlled by elements in the Establishment rather than people’s representatives who have been undermined by their own frailties past and present.

The US will have to contend with these issues and thus US Pakistan relations will continue to have a bumpy ride in the days ahead as there is no narrowing down of differences seen given the tempestuous differences in the past and a fundamental difference in the political approach.


More by :  Col. Rahul K. Bhonsle

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