Pakistan-US relations on the slide again

Last week's killing of Taleban chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour, in a United States drone attack for "his refusal to talk peace", in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan, further complicates Pakistan -US relations.

It will have a direct bearing on the elusive search for peace in Afghanistan that has remained in a state of war since 1979. The Taleban - who represent the Afghan resistance against foreign military presence in their country - have chosen a new leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, who also vowed in a radio message "…we will not come to any type of peace talks".

Pakistan's Interior Minister, Mr Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, has made the usual protests against the "violation of Pakistan's sovereignty" to the American ambassador. He also warned of "serious implications" for Pakistan-US relations, declaring the attack "against international law".

More importantly, when the American ambassador called on Pakistan's military chief, General Raheel Sharif, on May 24, he heard the general say: "Such acts of sovereignty violations are detrimental to relations between both countries and are counter-productive for ongoing peace process for regional stability." The benchmark of Pakistan-US relations historically is America's relations with the Pakistan army.

The quadrilateral dialogue process comprising Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States launched in August last year is now dead. The Taleban team attended the first round of talks in July last year, which had stalled after the Afghan security agency disclosed the death of Mullah Omar, the former Taleban chief, two years back. The Americans and Afghan interlocutors were not prepared to concede even the minimum of goodwill to facilitate further Taleban participation. With the recent killing, there are widespread fears that the Taleban will build on their military gains during the summer offensive.

Pakistan did not read the signals of US and Kabul's exhaustion with Taleban refusal to negotiate peace on the terms of the occupying forces.

The Kabul regime, after a short period of bonhomie, has become increasingly strident towards Islamabad. In what is considered a tit-for-tat policy, the Kabul government provides sanctuaries to Pakistani Taleban, who launch deadly operations inside Pakistan, including the December 2014 Peshawar school bombing.

The Americans, failing to meet their objectives and already into their longest war, have been tightening where it hurts Pakistan most - money and military equipment. Wary of the Taleban's battlefield successes, American opinion makers - including retired General David Petraeus, the former commander in Afghanistan - recommend "we need to take the gloves off these [US]forces already in the country". Military commanders are seeking greater leverage in deploying air power to quell Taleban advances.

Notwithstanding Pakistan's two-year-old military campaign in the tribal regions with over 5,000 military men dead, America remains unsatisfied. The US Congress has imposed restrictions on the release of hundreds of millions of dollars in reimbursements due to Pakistan out of the Coalition Support Fund unless the administration certifies fulfilling certain conditions.

The US wants Dr Shakil Afridi, a traitor under Pakistan law, who helped track Osama bin Laden through a fake vaccination campaign, released from detention. And ominously for Pakistan's security, the Congress wants Pakistan to discontinue its long-range missile programme and stop producing tactical weapons.

Fearful of an ever-increasing Indian arms buildup and US courting India, Pakistan cannot accept such a restriction on its weapon-development programme.

For the Taleban the equation is simple. They consider the government installed by America in Kabul as illegitimate. They want all foreign forces out and to settle their affairs among the Afghans themselves.

The Kabul regime's dilemma is that in spite of the billions poured in, it is unable to sustain itself without American military support. Its interests are therefore dependent upon foreign military presence.

Pakistan-US relations have been on a roller-coaster ride since the independence of Pakistan. With the US obsessively centred on India, Pakistan has always been at the US' beck and call, mistakenly hoping that the superpower will provide security against its neighbouring nemesis - a belief first shaken when US provided military supplies to India against China in 1962.

To Pakistan's dismay, the US continues to woo India, keeping relations with Pakistan transient and almost entirely security-based. Both sides have made assumptions that did not turn into reality.

The US expected straightforward services from Pakistan in return for financial support. US-Pakistan relations tend to be whenever the military is directly in charge in Islamabad. Much of Pakistan's current problems stem from its military rulers embracing US goals in Afghanistan.

But Pakistan was jettisoned every time the US purpose was fulfilled. From Pakistan's perspective the story of Pakistan-US relations is that of "American betrayals".

The public in Pakistan, and the leadership in private, remain deeply suspicious of US motives and believe that American protestations of friendship are hollow and that it is forcing Pakistan to support its objectives in Afghanistan. With a badly enfeebled economy, Pakistan is virtually a hostage to international moneylenders, where America has a huge leverage. The grudging relations will continue.

On Afghanistan, much still depends on how deftly Pakistan plays its cards and holds out till US withdrawal or the fall of the Kabul regime, whichever happens earlier.

• Sajjad Ashraf is an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. He was Pakistan's High Commissioner to Singapore from 2004-2008.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 01, 2016, with the headline 'Pakistan-US relations on the slide again'. Print Edition | Subscribe