The Lahore High Court’s decision on 11 February not to release from custody the American official involved in the fatal shooting on 27 January of two Pakistanis in Lahore - despite very heavy US pressure to release him because it claims he has diplomatic immunity - demonstrates once again how limited is Washington’s leverage over Pakistan. His next court date is scheduled for 28 February.
Reportedly, the ‘diplomat’ was assaulted in a robbery attempt by two individuals and he responded in self-defence. A third Pakistani was killed by a consulate vehicle that had rushed to the scene of the shooting.
Whilst this may well have been the sequence of events, many Pakistanis don’t believe this is the whole truth. The rumour mill, encouraged by the anti-western Islamic parties, has been working overtime on this issue. Many believe the American was not a diplomat, but an intelligence agent. The question everyone wants an answer to is: what was he doing carrying a gun which he was not legally allowed to do even if he is supposedly a diplomat?
Whatever may be the case, this incident will not help an already difficult bilateral relationship. And over the last few months there have been many issues over which the Americans and the Pakistanis have not seen eye-to-eye on. I will focus only on three of these.
In December last year, the CIA station chief in Islamabad was publicly exposed and, as a consequence, forced to leave the country. Whilst the all-powerful army intelligence agency, the ISI, denied any involvement in the whole affair, this was a severe blow to the relationship given the critical role the CIA station chief plays in coordinating the un-manned drone strikes against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda operatives hiding in the tribal areas of western Pakistan.
The second issue, the drone attacks - whilst quite successful in hitting Afghan Taliban and Al-Qaeda commanders as well as Pakistani Taliban militants entrenched in the tribal areas - have undoubtedly been the single most important factor in the rise of anti-Americanism among ordinary Pakistanis. These drone strikes, which have increased significantly under President Obama (80% of all attacks since 2004), are seen as callous and insulting to Pakistanis, even though the number of civilian casualties is relatively low. And whilst these drone strikes have the tacit approval of the Pakistani government, they reaffirm in the eyes of the Pakistani public that the Americans can do whatever they want in Pakistan.
One of the reasons the Americans have increased these drone strikes is because of the Pakistani military’s reluctance to hunt down the anti-Coalition fighters holed up in North Waziristan, the tribal area on the border with Afghanistan. This is despite repeated requests from the Obama Administration to do so.
There are two critical reasons why the Pakistani Army is not interested in accommodating the Americans on this third issue. As a starter, North Waziristan is ideal guerrilla country, with deep valleys, high ridges and few roads, making it very difficult for the Pakistan army to eliminate the militants. Having already lost more men over the last few years than have the Coalition countries in Afghanistan, it is no wonder that the Pakistani army has no appetite to engage these Afghan Taliban fighters and their allies.
The Pakistani government is also planning ahead to the day the Coalition forces leave Afghanistan. Accordingly, it is hedging its bets and going easy on some of the Afghan Taliban groups, especially the Haqqani network, which might one day be part of the government in Kabul. Importantly, the Haqqani network fighters are particularly nasty and have been the most ruthless in eliminating Coalition forces.
Needless to say, Pakistan’s approach to North Waziristan has significantly irritated the US. However, in an unusual development, Lt. Gen David Rodriguez, the deputy commander of US forces in Afghanistan, stated on 1 February that if the Pakistani army did not go into North Waziristan this would not mean ‘mission failure’ in Afghanistan. With such optimistic words from one of the top US commanders, there is now little pressure on the Pakistani armed forces to go into the tribal area. It will be interesting to watch whether a similar assessment will be repeated by other American officials.
What Pakistan’s approach to those three issues reveal is that, despite Washington giving almost US$12 billion in military and economic aid over the next five years of so, the Obama Administration has little leverage over Pakistan. Put differently, and quite ironically, the US needs Pakistan more than Pakistan needs the US.
Pakistan is so geo-strategically important, particularly with regard to the Afghan war, that Washington can only push Islamabad so far, and the Pakistanis know this only too well.
For example, 70 per cent of all the non-lethal materiel needed by the Coalition forces in Afghanistan goes through Pakistan. So last year, following a border incident in which a number of Pakistani soldiers were mistakenly killed by US forces inside Pakistan, the Pakistani authorities halted the truck convoys carrying this materiel from the port of Karachi to the Afghan border. The message was clear: don’t take Islamabad for granted.
Too often the Americans think that their security interests in the region are the same as Pakistan’s. And it’s this misunderstanding which compounds what Secretary of State Clinton’s refers to as the ‘trust deficit’ between the two countries.
President Obama will be visiting Pakistan later in the year. This will be a unique opportunity for the US to deliver something of value to Pakistan which would help correct this trust deficit. Some influential experts in Washington are suggesting that the US should offer a civil nuclear deal similar to the one it signed with India, Pakistan’s arch enemy. However, this is unlikely to happen given Pakistan’s poor track record on nuclear proliferation. A more achievable and worthwhile deliverable would be for Washington to offer a free trade agreement with Pakistan – something which Islamabad has been keen to achieve for years and which would have long-term benefits for thousands of ordinary Pakistanis.
But most importantly, unless the US offers something of significance to Pakistan relatively soon, the leaders in Islamabad may well start to rethink the value of the country’s relationship with the US. Recent developments in Tunisia and Egypt, where two long-standing pro-US governments have been ousted, will certainly have focussed their minds on that issue.
Turning back to the case of the jailed American official, it is likely that he will be released from custody. But this will cost President Zardary dearly domestically, as this will once again confirm the perception that he simply does what the Americans tell him to do. Paradoxically, while the release of the ‘diplomat’ would end a difficult episode in the bilateral relationship, it will also weaken an already shaky government having difficulties countering the growing insurgency. Is this really in Washington’s best interest?