Panetta and Pakistan

June 08, 2012


THE US-Pakistan relationship is going through one of its roughest patches. But that does not justify the US defence secretary’s provocative public remarks in foreign capitals on each side of Pakistan in recent days. In Kabul yesterday Mr Panetta said America was reaching the “limits of [its] patience” regarding terrorist safe havens in the tribal areas. And New Delhi was an entirely inappropriate location for him to publicly discuss US-Pakistan tensions, compare them to India-Pakistan tensions, or share a joke about hiding the Osama bin Laden raid from Pakistan — all while describing India as an integral partner for America’s new military strategy in Asia. The language the secretary has used, in the locations he has chosen to use it, only runs the risk of making Pakistan’s security establishment more intransigent and paranoid and will become fodder for right-wing forces propagating anti-India and anti-America opinions. All of which will only make it tougher for the Pakistani government to cooperate with the US. It is unclear to what extent the State Department agrees with Mr Panetta’s approach, or whether, along with the stepped-up drone strikes, his words are part of a new and more aggressive American tactic to address the current impasse over Nato supply routes. But sending such messages publicly in foreign capitals with which Pakistan has complicated relationships — rather than limiting them to private discussions in Islamabad or Washington — will likely be counterproductive.

For Pakistan, this should be a moment to stop and think about where our strategies and policies have gotten us. Mr Panetta’s remarks highlighted the isolation into which the country has dragged itself. They also threw into stark contrast the much greater international sympathy that other regional players have managed to earn from the world. The perception of Pakistan as the global problem child now exists from the highest levels of foreign governments to the average foreign citizen; a recent worldwide BBC survey on the perceived positive or negative influence of various countries ranked Pakistan second from the bottom.

So in one corner we see an obstinate Pakistan stalling on Nato supply routes, demanding an apology over Salala and failing to communicate successfully to the world why it is not going after certain safe havens. In the other corner there is an America that has ramped up drone attacks in the face of categorical Pakistani objections and is making aggressive public statements in India and Afghanistan. After 9/11, the two countries had a chance to forge a mutually advantageous relationship that could also have benefited the region and the world. They are both wasting the opportunity.