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Tensions Rise Between United States, Pakistan

by Jackie Northam

NPR, April 21, 2009

A lot of bad blood currently exists between Washington and Islamabad, according to U.S. and Pakistani officials. President Obama has made it clear that success for U.S. efforts to stabilize Afghanistan depends in large part on what happens in Pakistan. But analysts say his new strategy for the region places huge demand on Pakistan and creates tension between the two countries something that became evident during a recent visit by U.S. officials.

In public, the United States and Pakistan are allies with a parallel interest in eradicating Islamist extremism. But behind the scenes, it's a complicated relationship one that Pakistani and American analysts say is increasingly fraught with resentment, miscommunication and mistrust.

There have been a series of incidents and issues recently that have contributed to the friction. One of them has to do with a bill introduced by Rep. Howard Berman, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, that calls for about $10 billion in military aid and development assistance over the next five years.

Shuja Nawaz with the Atlantic Council says the bill is loaded with conditions that even the most stable government would find difficult to fulfill. "It's created a very powerful backlash in Pakistan among the public for one, who think the United States is dictating, and among the government."

Nawaz says every condition in the bill is so specific, it almost precludes discussion. He points to terrorism: "Pakistan has to certify that there is no activity taking place against India." Nawaz says even if Pakistan were to certify that, "does it actually have enough control to prevent another Mumbai type of attacks?"

The bill would authorize funds for training Pakistan's military in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency. It would be conditioned on a presidential certification that the Pakistani government is making a sustained commitment to battling terrorism and closing down Taliban camps in the tribal areas and other parts of the country.

The bill sponsored by Berman has a long road to travel and will likely be amended many times before even if it's passed. The sheer number of conditions saturating the 59-page bill helps illustrate Congress's frustration with Pakistan.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the United States has given Pakistan $11 billion to help fight terrorism. The Bush administration did not demand any accounting of the funds, and the United States arguably got little for its investment.

Vali Nasr, a professor at Tufts University's Fletcher School of International Affairs, has been tapped to be a senior adviser to Richard Holbrooke, the administration's special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Nasr says this time Pakistan will need to be held accountable for the U.S. aid it receives.

"For those in Pakistan who are used to receiving money with no questions asked the military, by and large, but also certain parts of bureaucracy, etc. this is obviously a glass half-full compared to what they had," Nasr says.

The aid issue hung over a visit to Pakistan earlier this month by Holbrooke and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. So too did the question of drones unmanned airplanes the United States has been using to attack suspected militants in the tribal areas of Pakistan, along the Afghanistan border.

Analysts say relations between the two sides soured after Mullen, Holbrooke and other senior U.S. officials publicly suggested that elements in Pakistan's powerful intelligence service, the ISI, retain close links with the Taliban.

"That has become a very sensitive issue," says Shahid Javed Burki, a former finance minister in Pakistan who meets with senior Pakistani officials during regular visits to the country. Burki says the issue was raised unnecessarily by the senior U.S. officials.

"What is their compulsion; what's their motive? I really don't know," he says.

Pakistan's intelligence chief, Ahmed Shuja Pasha, refused to hold separate meetings with the U.S. team. The tension between the U.S. and Pakistani officials was almost palpable during a joint press conference at the end of the visit.

The Pakistani foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, said the bottom line is a question of trust. "We are partners, and we want to be partners," he says.

Qureshi says the United States and Pakistan can only work together "if we respect each other and we trust each other. There is no other way. Nothing else will work."

U.S. officials say Mullen and Holbrooke's comments stem from impatience with Pakistan's efforts to crack down on the growth of the Taliban.

Still, the Atlantic Council's Nawaz says those comments along with the other issues did not produce a positive outcome.

"This is probably the worst-ever visit by an American team to South Asia in history ... It was a complete disaster," he says. "And if this is how you want to win friends, I just wonder how you want to create enemies."

But the Fletcher School's Nasr says the Obama administration is trying to make Pakistan a strategic partner: a process that he says can often provoke tension.

"You're trying to recalibrate a decades-old relationship in the middle of a war and in a new direction, and there's going to be hiccups, there's going to be resistance, there's going to be pushback, there's going to be disappointment," he says.

Despite this, Nasr says he thinks the Obama administration is doing the right thing. But analysts say it's also asking a lot of a Pakistani government that's extremely fragile and has only been in power for about a year.

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