It has been just over a year since U.S. President Barack Obama ordered the Special Operations team of U.S. Navy Seals to conduct a unilateral operation against Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. But the operation, while a major victory for Obama in the so-called War on Terror, further complicated an already teetering relationship with Pakistan. True, the relationship was already in trouble. But a year on and it’s clear the bin Laden operation only added fuel to the fire.
Despite Islamabad’s persistent denials that bin Laden was in the country, he was found in a house in a garrison town. For Washington, the next puzzle to solve was the nature of Pakistan’s military “understanding” with bin Laden. Either the military was complicit in harboring the world’s most wanted terrorist, or it was somehow so incompetent that it couldn’t find him in the neighborhood of its training academy. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ruled out complicity of top-level Pakistani military or government officials. But the raid also highlighted a sense of insecurity. According to a June 2011 Pew Research poll, 73 percent of Pakistanis had an unfavorable view of the United States, while a mere 14 percent favored bin Laden’s killing. One Pakistani army officer, Brig. Ali Khan, was later arrested for “subverting the government” by stating what he thought of Pakistan’s complicity and failure to resist the United States.
So where do ties stand now? On the one hand since joining hands in late 2001, Washington has been praising Islamabad for its commitment and sacrifice of more than 3,500 military personnel and as many as 35,000 Pakistani civilians. Last year, soon after the killing of bin Laden, Obama said: “We have been able to kill more terrorists on Pakistani soil than just about anyplace else. We could not have done that without Pakistani cooperation.” On the other hand, American officials have suspected and often accused the Pakistani military of supporting militant groups, particularly the Afghan Taliban. Although Washington and Islamabad have never been on the same page since 9/11, both sides have always made an effort to maintain their ties.
In the words of Washington-based Pakistani journalist Anwar Iqbal, “the year 2011 was like 2001 – a game changer,” for it exposed the fragile nature of the relationship. He compares the two years by stating “while the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacksbrought Pakistan back into the game, events happening in 2011 are pushing [the country] out.”
The relationship has seen ups and downs since the 9/11 attacks, but it has now fallen to such a low that both sides have almost given up hope of rebuilding close ties. Never smooth even at the best of times, this current phase can reasonably be described as the sourest ever.
In a November 2011 CBS poll, a majority of Americans said that Pakistan is either unfriendly (39 percent) or an enemy (24 percent), while 21 percent said that it is friendly but not an ally, and only 2 percent called it an ally. Similarly, the June 2011 Pew Research poll mentioned earlier showed that most Pakistanis see the United States as an enemy and a potential threat to their country’s security.
There will clearly, then, be ups and downs in this relationship for some time. Accusations and counter-accusations will be heard. As both countries are heading for the voting booths, finger-pointing may sharpen even further. Many political and religious parties in Pakistan may use the United States as a punch bag. Popular media in both countries may capture flashes of fiery speeches, thereby aggravating the situation. But this doesn’t mean that doomsday is just around the corner, for both sides will still try to preserve and rebuild the relationship.
The United States isn’t going to deliberately cut off ties with Pakistan, nor is Pakistan likely to permanently end all support. There is no better person to sum up the current phase of relations between the two countries than the U.S ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter: “If we are going to get out of what has been a very tough period, it is going to be because both countries decided they are going to look at something bigger than themselves.”
Imtiaz Ali is a Fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU). This article was adapted from a policy brief published by ISPU, “U.S.-Pakistan Relations: Facing a Critical Juncture.”