The darkest days of the US-Pakistan relationship

By: Michael Kugelman

I’ve been in Washington for 15 years, and I’ve never seen such high levels of hostility directed toward Pakistan.

I don’t attribute this sentiment solely to the steady stream of incidents that have angered America. Tension points have been present for decades; the Shakil Afridi incident and the refusal to reopen Nato supply lines are simply the latest incarnations.

That said, one cannot overstate the extent of US government anger about the Pakistan-based Haqqani network’s repeated attacks on American troops and interests in Afghanistan. I recently attended a private meeting involving high-level US government officials, and the group’s assault on the US embassy in Kabul last September was cited as a chief reason for Washington’s unhappiness.

This anger is a bit easier to understand in light of recent revelations that a June 1 attack on a US military facility in Khost Province (carried out by the Haqqani network, in Washington’s view) was much more serious than originally reported. Initially described as a US-casualty-free incident, the operation in fact involved a truck bombing, two American and five Afghan deaths, and dozens of wounded troops.

Beyond all this, however, a larger force is at play — what political scientists refer to as a paradigm shift. In recent days, two noted Washington Pakistan-watchers have published commentaries in prominent outlets that suggest the relationship is doomed. In a Washington Post op-ed, the Stimson Center’s Michael Krepon asserted that “more Pakistanis and Americans are reaching the same conclusion: that it is not worth the effort, money or subterfuge required to patch up relations.” Meanwhile, Shamila Chaudhary, formerly a National Security Council staffer and top aide to Hillary Clinton, wrote in a Foreign Policy piece (entitled “The Patience Runs Out”) that up to now, “we’ve all just put up” with Pakistan’s “outdated and destabilising Afghanistan policy” because “it’s been taken as gospel that the United States needs Pakistan. That truism, at last, is no longer true.”

Such conclusions come on the heels of Leon Panetta’s recent trip to India, where he openly advocated for India to play a larger role in Afghanistan — for years, a suggestion US officials wouldn’t dared have made publicly for fear of offending Pakistan. Instances like these prompt Chaudhary (one of the savviest Pakistan analysts in town) to conclude that Washington is “actively looking to replace Pakistan.”

If one steps back and places this all in the proper strategic context, Washington’s behavior starts to make sense. The Obama administration has announced its intention to pursue an “Asia pivot,” which involves intensifying engagement with countries in the Asia-Pacific. In recent days, President Obama met with the president of the Philippines; Clinton hosted officials from Cambodia, Thailand, and South Korea; and Panetta travelled to Singapore, Vietnam, and, of course, India. While rarely stated explicitly, a chief motivation for this policy shift is to counter the rise of China, one of Pakistan’s closest allies. Washington, of course, views India as a counterweight to China’s rise.

Yet one need not resort to grand strategy to understand what’s afoot. Given America’s domestic troubles during this election season, it’s simply not politically expedient for Washington to be advocating for a long-term, aid-driven relationship with Pakistan.

Take the case of Reading, Pennsylvania. Last week, I travelled to this city — a three-hour drive from Washington — to give a talk to the local chapter of the World Affairs Council. In its heyday, Reading prospered from coal and steel production. Today, it has the nation’s largest share of residents living in poverty. The city has residents interested in foreign affairs (about 75 of them attended my presentation), but with a poverty rate of 41 per cent, there’s much more concern about struggles closer to home. Pakistan rarely registers on radars, except in dismissive ways (“That’s a pretty crazy country, isn’t it?” a waitress said to me a ta local restaurant).

This is not the ideal venue to make an impassioned appeal for, say, continued US economic assistance to Pakistan.

Thankfully, Washington is not giving up completely on the bilateral relationship. Behind the scenes, policymakers and think tanks are feverishly exploring how to get the relationship back on track. Increasingly, Americans are grudgingly acknowledging this will have to be done knowing that Pakistan will not help attain many key US interests (including the elimination of the Haqqani network’s Pakistan-based sanctuary).

Still, these efforts will not get any easier with the dismissal of Pakistan’s prime minister earlier this week, and the general outlook remains gloomy. There’s a saying heard often around these parts: Pakistan and the United States have a failing marriage, yet they insist on keeping the relationship together for the sake of their child, Afghanistan.

Alas, the situation now appears so grave that the two sides may be prepared to act against the best interests of their child — and, perhaps, of each other.

The author is the program associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. You can reach him at and follow him on Twitter: @michaelkugelman


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