The deadly cross-border attack in Pakistan this weekend, in which Afghan and NATO forces accidentally killed at least 25 Pakistani soldiers during an airstrike, is only the latest symptom of America’s toxic relationship with Pakistan. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the Pakistanis want Americans out of their country, despite our best efforts to convince ourselves otherwise. We’ve been slow to heed what an actual rupture will mean for our foreign policy.
It’s worth pointing out that this decline in our relationship happened on President Obama’s watch. The much-vaunted Nobel Peace Prize winner doesn’t appear to have figured out diplomacy yet — he’s attempted to engage Iran (didn’t work) and stopped talking to Maliki and Karzai (didn’t work), while failing to give Pakistan the same kind of attention he’s showered on Indonesia. That’s strange, as this is the relationship that has needed the most tending to, because Pakistan is crucial to both transitioning power in the war in Afghanistan and containing the spread of nuclear weapons in the region and world.
The cross-border attack is yet another incident that will almost certainly be mishandled. First, there was the release of the Wikileaks cables, which crippled our relationship with key allies in the Pakistani military — most notably the head of the army, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who was recorded requesting surveillance drones for South Waziristan. It left Kayani, a man the U.S. military considered a friend, feeling embarrassed and burned. The CIA drone war is extremely unpopular with the Pakistani public, which is why the government and army had never publicly acknowledged their support of it — the Pakistani elite did so only privately. The fact that Pakistani officials are now openly threatening to close the U.S. drone base in Pakistan is a sign of just how angry they are.
The second major blow was the Raymond Davis affair. Davis, a CIA contractor, killed two armed men in Lahore in January. He was arrested by Pakistani authorities and charged with murder in what became a protracted diplomatic imbroglio, his release secured only with the transfer of “blood money” to the families of those he killed.
The third — and unavoidable — incident was the covert mission that killed Osama bin Laden, which was deliberately kept from our Pakistani allies out of a well-founded fear that they would compromise the mission. The operation stripped away any pretenses of partnership — America’s most symbolically important enemy was being harbored less than a mile from a Pakistani military installation.
We can’t trust you, and you don’t trust us. That’s now the dynamic guiding our relationship; that’s the trust deficit. And, perversely, while our trust has dropped in Pakistan, we’ve become more dependent on Pakistani goodwill. About 40 percent of the U.S.’s supplies go through Pakistan, enabling the Afghan surge, and the War on Terror, under Obama, has been defined by the U.S. drone campaign in Pakistan, so we need Pakistan to keep allowing us to do it. The 20-billion-dollar question — the amount we’ve given Pakistan in foreign assistance and military support since Sept. 11, 2001 — is: Do we now need Pakistan more than they need us?
In last week’s Republican foreign-policy debate, Michele Bachmann deftly made the case why Pakistan matters, calling it “too nuclear to fail.” Bachmann contended, “Potentially, al-Qaeda could get hold of these weapons.” A chilling possibility. I worry that we may have reached the point of no return with Pakistan. It’s hard to imagine things getting much worse, short of an outbreak of war. That gives our policymakers a certain freedom, though, to reimagine our partnership. If Pakistan kicks our drones out or closes our supply lines, the billions in aid should end. Pakistan will no longer be our close ally, but instead neither friend nor foe. It’s a harsh reality that seems likely sooner rather than later.
— Elise Jordan is a New York–based writer and commentator. She served as a director for communications in the National Security Council in 2008–09 and was a speechwriter for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.