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So close and yet so far

· Islamabad and Washington: between mistrust and collaboration ·

So close and yet so far apart, Pakistan and the United States. Now like never before, perhaps. The raid that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden has contributed to widening the divide between the two countries that know, however, that collaboration is crucial to fighting and defeating Al Qaeda and various extremist cells. This double-edged situation has been significantly confirmed by the visit to Islamabad of Senator John Kerry, President of the US Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations, who made no secret of the differences between Pakistan and the United States. Kerry hypothesized the withholding of massive financial aid to Islamabad for the fight against terrorism. At the same time, however, the Senator repeated the need to look beyond the divisions: success against Al Qaeda, in fact, requires a united front. Friction and fractures could become damaging. Precisely in these hours, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen declared that a break in the rapport between the United States and Pakistan could have “extremely negative” consequences. Islamabad, besides, has tense relationships not just with the United States. Just yesterday, two NATO helicopters crossed into the Pakistan border from east Afghanistan and according to Islamabad intelligence, the helicopters opened fire against a military position, injuring two local soldiers. The Pakistani army immediately lodged a protest with the ISAF, which assured them that an investigation has begun to determine responsibility. An episode which risks worsening already weak ties.

Certainly the operation of the US Special Forces which led to the elimination of bin Laden has not helped the already difficult relationship between the US and Pakistan. Islamabad contested the initiative which they claimed was “unilateral” and risked impinging on the national sovereignty of Pakistan. The military leaders of Islamabad, immediately following the raid, warned Washington not to repeat operations of this type.

At the same time, however, once particular circumstances of the raid came to light, new suspicions were raised about the role of Pakistani authorities, who for some time have been accused of not doing enough to defeat terrorism. Bin Laden’s hiding place was near Islamabad and not (as one would have expected) in a mountainous and inaccessible area. This element raised a dose of suspicion in the international political arena regarding Pakistan’s real resolve and capacity to liberate its territory from extremist elements. Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Yousuf Faza Gilani, could not hide a certain embarrassment when he learned where bin Laden had been hiding. India, whose relations with Pakistan have improved recently, accused Islamabad of giving refuge to terrorists. During Senator Kerry’s visit, the Pakistani Prime Minister said that he hoped that relations between the two countries would be based increasingly on principles of reciprocal trust and fairness. Prime Minister Gilani in a recent interview in Le Figaro , highlighted the strategic importance of maintaining “good relations” with Washington, knowing that divisions in the fight against terrorism could be fatal. At the same time, however, The Wall Street Journal reported negative reactions from Pakistani military leaders to the “all-American” raid against Bin Laden. The situation is a two-way street in which diplomatic equilibrium is particularly arduous. It is enough to consider the carefully chosen words of US President Barack Obama in requesting an investigation (subsequently undertaken by Gilani) into possible infiltrations in Pakistan intelligence: so-called “deviated” elements, or activities which would have occurred without the knowledge of the leaders of intelligence. Obama emphasized that the investigation should be “all Pakistani” and that it is in the security and stability interests of Pakistan itself; but the un-spoken sense of the White House request is that the Pakistan come clean in the interest of everyone.

For some time, the international community has pointed the finger at Islamabad for its presumed ambiguous relations with extremist groups. US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has repeatedly requested that Pakistani authorities demonstrate greater determination in this regard. Requests which not infrequently became reprimands: nearly two years ago, the head of US diplomacy, during a visit to the capital, accused Islamabad of giving in too easily to compromise with the Taleban. An approach, Clinton said, which risks undermining not just Pakistan’s security and that of the entire region, but also international security. Besides, the Obama Administration has stated on more than one occasion that the decisive battle in the global fight against terrorism is fought precisely in Pakistan and Afghanistan.




St. Peter’s Square

Oct. 20, 2019