U.S. and Pakistan work slowly to patch things up

05/22/2014 5:24 PM

06/03/2014 10:17 AM

Some looming challenges could make 2014 a crucial year in the relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan.

The two countries’ dealings have been strained — particularly since 2011, when a U.S. raid in May killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan and a seemingly unprovoked NATO forces attack six months later killed dozens of Pakistani soldiers.

But the U.S., Pakistan’s largest trading partner, has worked to lessen tensions by actions such as halting drone strikes in tribal areas.

Two issues could complicate matters — the prospect for growing influence of India in Afghanistan after withdrawal of Western troops and the just-approved Pakistan-Iran gas pipeline project. Just this week, Pakistan’s top army general, Raheel Sharif, visited Afghanistan, where he discussed these and other concerns with his counterpart.

Pakistan is worried about the latest India-Russia Afghan arms deal, which, according to critics, could be a game-changer in the region. Indian media have reported that India is paying for arms and equipment from Moscow to empower the Afghan military.

Washington, however, has been silent about the growing influence of Russia and India in Afghanistan. Both China and Iran are also closely monitoring the development.

Pakistan’s energy crisis represents another setback.

The U.S., which has imposed sanctions on Iran, has been calling on Pakistan to give up a Pakistan-Iran gas pipeline project by adding more than 1,000 megawatts to Pakistan’s major energy projects — Diamer-Bhasha and Dasu Dam. But it hasn’t been enough — parts of Pakistan are still without power for hours each day.

The country’s average demand is about 17,500 megawatts, but it currently faces a shortfall of up to 5,200 megawatts. So Islamabad has asked the U.S. to exempt the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project from sanctions.

But the need for the multi-billion dollar pipeline was too great: Despite U.S. concerns, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani earlier this month agreed to move forward with the project.

With these challenges, Islamabad is also warily eyeing new governments in the making along its Western and Eastern borders. In Afghanistan, critics say, early polls suggest that an Abdullah-led government could lead to new concerns for both Islamabad and Washington. As will a government led by Narendra Modi in India.

“It is also difficult precisely because the Pakistani military’s objectives run counter to those of the U.S. in the region,” observed Najam Sethi, senior anchor of the Geo Television Network. “The U.S. wants normalization of Pakistan’s relations with India and acknowledgement of India’s Big Brother role in South Asia and Afghanistan. Similarly, the U.S. wanted a multi-ethnic secular regime in Afghanistan but Pakistan wanted an Islamic Pashtun regime in Kabul.”

Veteran journalist Kamran Rehmat said Pakistan “remains deeply unhappy over how it has been historically used and dispensed with to suit American interests despite the epic scale of losses it has rendered to fight ‘America’s war’.”

It’s true that the two countries have not always had each other’s best interests at heart. The U.S. has tried to pressure Pakistan into doing its bidding in the region and beyond by offering money and weapons. But the Pakistanis have taken the aid without complying with the conditions, at times even opposing U.S. interests and policy.

The Pakistani military continued to play a double game after entering the war on terror on the U.S. side by providing sanctuaries for Afghani Taliban forces and then looking the other way as they mounted campaigns against international security troops in Afghanistan.

Both countries need to recognize each other’s respective interests and rebuild trust on a frank and realistic exchange of objectives and strategies in the region.

Revival of dialogue will deepen cooperation on shared security challenges in the region, and, if the two nations can get past their disagreements on the Iranian pipeline project, it would help alleviate Pakistan’s very real energy crisis.

Zahid Gishkori is a visiting Pakistani journalist through the Alfred Friendly fellow program. Reach him at 816-234-4333 or zgishkori@kcstar.com. Twitter: @zahidgishkori.

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