A Tough Week for Pakistani Diplomacy

Events lay bare just how strategically isolated Islamabad has become

As my last post noted, the events of the past week show that New Delhi is sitting pretty diplomatically, being courted ardently by both Washington and Beijing.  Conversely, they also laid bare just how strategically isolated Islamabad has become.

Pakistan’s most recent troubles began with President Obama giving President Asif Ali Zardari the cold shoulder at the NATO summit in Chicago three weeks ago.  Since then Washington has dramatically ramped up its campaign of drone attacks in the country’s tribal areas, which last week killed Al Qaeda’s second in command in North Warizistan.  Officials in Islamabad publicly denounce the strikes as violating the country’s sovereignty and they have helped drive a marked increase in anti-American sentiment.  Yet U.S. officials reportedly believe that they have very little to lose by defying Pakistani sensitivities.

While Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was in New Delhi last week making overtures for a strategic partnership with Pakistan’s arch-rival – including calls for greater Indian involvement in Afghanistan, a neuralgic issue for the Pakistanis – he was also telling Islamabad to stuff it.  Stoutly defending the drone campaign, he declared that “we have made it very clear that we are going to continue to defend ourselves” and “we are fighting a war” in the tribal badlands.

Adding insult to injury from Islamabad’s view was his public chuckle about the necessity of keeping Pakistani officials in the dark about the U.S. commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden – “They did not know about our operation.  That was the whole point.” – as well as his comparison of U.S.-Pakistan affairs with that of India’s own torturous relationship.  As the Associated Press wryly notes,

You know a friendship has gone sour when you start making mean jokes about your friend in front of his most bitter nemesis.

Panetta regularly traveled to Pakistan during his recent stint as CIA director but has purposively avoided going there in the year since he’s moved over to the Pentagon.  Although his eight-day tour of Asia took him to New Delhi and Kabul, among other places, Islamabad was conspicuously missing from his itinerary.  Indeed, showing up in the Afghan capital, he once again unloaded on the Pakistanis, warning them that U.S. leaders are reaching “the limits of our patience.”  General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, followed up by telling reporters in Washington that he too is “extraordinarily dissatisfied” with Pakistani actions.

Further evidence of Islamabad’s deteriorating position came from the transit agreements NATO signed last week with several Central Asian countries in an attempt to bypass Pakistan’s blockade on supplies going into Afghanistan, as well as the multiplying calls in the U.S. Congress for reducing military and economic assistance.

Pakistanis like to believe that China is the trump card they can play against the Americans.  This tenet was once again expressed in a recent op-ed that called on Pakistanis to liberate themselves “from the hold of the West by embracing our friends in the East.”  But the real limits to this strategy were once again apparent over the last few weeks.  During a visit to Islamabad in late May, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi publicly pledged Beijing’s firm commitment to “firmly support Pakistan in protecting its sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and dignity.”  Privately, however, he was counseling Pakistani leaders to settle their differences with the Americans.

Zardari must have been shocked by Chinese actions when he showed up in Beijing for last week’s summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.  Executive Vice Premier Li Keqiang (who is widely expected to become the next head of government) made a special point of telling Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna, also attending the forum, that Sino-Indian ties were destined to become the century’s important bilateral relationship.  Li’s phrase is a virtual echo of the Obama administration’s regular formulation about Washington and New Delhi constituting “an indispensable partnership for the 21st century,” and it signals that the two most important external powers in South Asian security affairs are in competition for India’s strategic allegiances.  Underscoring this point is Beijing’s recent move upgrading its ambassador in New Delhi to vice-ministerial status.

Dawn, Pakistan’s largest English-language newspaper, advised the other week that links with China “should not become cause for complacency or reason to assume that a functional relationship with the US is not critical and long overdue.”  If Pakistani leaders had yet to absorb this lesson, this week’s events should have driven it home.  Perhaps that explains Zardari’s conciliatory reaction to Panetta’s broadsides.

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