Resetting the U.S.-Pakistan Relationship

Howard Schaffer and
Howard Schaffer Georgetown University
Teresita C. Schaffer
Teresita C. Schaffer Former Brookings Expert, Senior Advisor - McLarty Associates

March 19, 2012

2011 was a catastrophic year for U.S.-Pakistan relations. Starting with CIA contractor Raymond Davis’s arrest for shooting two Pakistanis dead in January, going on through the raid on Abbottabad in early May that killed Osama bin Laden, and culminating in the NATO forces lethal attack on a Pakistani border post in November 2011, a series of shocks shook this important partnership to its core. Both countries expect their future relationship to be more modest, but neither has defined this concept. As they grapple with this change, U.S. policymakers need to recognize that Pakistan, not Afghanistan, is the big issue, and to develop building blocks for a post-2014 relationship that meets the needs of both countries.

A recent visit to Pakistan provided a sobering view of where the United States now stands. Hostility toward the U.S. government among politicians, elites and the general public are a familiar problem, but two other aspects of today’s problem are worth underlining. First, within the government, the biggest problem is with the Pakistan army, traditionally the privileged party when ties with Washington are robust. The army is now going out of its way to showcase an angry response to these humiliating events. The Pakistan government’s continuing refusal of visas for many U.S. official visitors, including military officers working on military procurement or aid projects is happening at the army’s request (notable exceptions are visitors dealing with F-16 supply or maintenance). Almost all the senior military officers who would normally have attended ceremonial events like the U.S. July 4th reception stayed away in 2011 – clearly on instructions.

Echoes of this resentment can be found on the U.S. side as well. Pakistanis are often quite unaware of the deep anger in the United States over Osama bin Laden’s long sojourn in Pakistan. Pakistanis have complained for decades about being taken for granted by the United States; that complaint is now coming from some of the Americans closest to the relationship. Pakistanis wonder why the United States is starting to build a towering and expensive new embassy complex in Islamabad. Americans are now privately asking the same question, and noting that the major defense office in the embassy has shrunk to a third of its former size since the visa freeze.

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