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And when a reporter asked Qureshi about those who doubt Pakistan’s commitment to the anti-terror fight and what both sides can do to turn the perceptions around, the Pakistani dodged the issue, saying only “our relationship is stronger than what it is believed to be.”
Yet, recent events would indicate the relationship is weaker than ever. In early October, Pakistan closed border crossings into Afghanistan to NATO convoys. Taliban insurgents then attacked and destroyed a large number of NATO fuel tankers backed up in Pakistan. Islamabad’s action was in response to increased U.S. attacks into tribal areas that support the insurgency in Afghanistan. The immediate cause of the border closure to NATO was a U.S. helicopter attack that killed three Pakistani soldiers the previous week. Among allies, such friendly fire incidents are regrettable but they do not disrupt operations. Islamabad’s actions were not those of an ally.
NATO attacks into Pakistan have been on the increase by both manned and drone aircraft because Islamabad cannot or will not police its own territory. Lands that cannot be controlled by national authorities cannot be considered sovereign. And when used by insurgents to attack neighboring states, the right to self defense justifies cross-border raids.
Pakistan created the Taliban as their vanguard for bringing Afghanistan under Islamabad’s control. Like terrorist attacks into Indian Kashmir, and deeper strikes such as the commando assault on Mumbai in 2008, Pakistan’s ambitions in Afghanistan were aimed at gaining an advantage against New Delhi. The U.S. and India thus have mutual interests to protect. President Obama has booked the Taj Mahal hotel for his visit, the target of the 2008 attack, sending another diplomatic signal across the region.
Islamabad has a major power to which it can turn when standing up to American pressure. China and Pakistan have long been allies against India. Pakistan is armed primarily with Chinese weapons, the use of which has also formed a strong bond between the militaries of the two countries. Beijing has built port facilities in Gadwar, which many suspect will be used by the Chinese fleet; several military airfields; and is now broadening the Karokoram highway running from Kashgar in China to Islamabad. Beijing has also given help to Pakistan’s missile program. The Sino-Pak JF-17 fighter project is Pakistan’s largest defense program. Secretary Clinton offered Islamabad $2 billion in military aid at the dialogue meeting, but it will not provide the kind of advanced conventional weapons Pakistan wants for use against India.
Pakistan is also improving its relations with Iran. Tehran, in turn, has been stepping up its operations in Afghanistan. Iran wants to build a pipeline across Pakistan to the sea, where one can expect Chinese tankers will be waiting for the flow.
Writing for an Islamist Pakistan website, retired Admiral Fasih Bokhari, former Chief of the Naval Staff, attacked the emerging U.S.-India strategic alignment. “The people of Pakistan oppose Indian regional supremacy, and any distancing from China, and thus no longer see America as an ally,” he argued, adding, “The Pakistan side must not be apologetic about its relations with China and Iran. China is a time tested friend with many convergences in strategic aims. The people, of what are Iran and Pakistan today, share intimate history that goes far back in time. It is obvious that Pakistan and American perspectives on China and Iran are far apart.”
Ralph Peters has long argued that the U.S. should just walk away from Pakistan and back India to the hilt, including full diplomatic support for any retaliation New Delhi visits upon Islamabad for sponsoring terrorism. Peters’ frustration may have taken him too far, though he is pointing in the right direction. The U.S. needs to stay engaged with Pakistan, seeking out elements in the government and society it can work with to check extremist elements and Chinese influence. But America and Pakistan do not have sufficient common interests or a shared outlook for the region upon which to build an alliance. Washington and India, however, do face the same threats, from both militant Islam and a rising China. They are natural strategic allies, further reinforced by democratic traditions and the rule of law.
The first U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue, was held in Washington this year (June 1-4). The next will be held early in 2011 in New Delhi, with President Obama’s visit filling the gap between meetings. These are the discussions that will really have meaning.
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