U.S. officials have grown increasingly vocal in their criticism of Pakistan's government in recent months, citing both its shortcomings in counterterrorism efforts and its failure to implement democratic reforms. But Pakistan is, in many ways, just as unhappy with what it sees as the Bush administration's near-exclusive emphasis on terrorism-related issues, says Zamir Akram, the chief foreign policy adviser to Pakistan's prime minister. "In other areas, the relationship hasn't moved very fast or very far," he told an audience at Washington's Middle East Institute. "We need to put more substance in this relationship."
U.S. officials have been warning publicly for months that al Qaeda has re-established a safe haven in Pakistan's lawless tribal regions, adding that part of the reason for this development was the failure of a controversial deal that the Pakistani government struck with tribal leaders last year to go after extremists. A growing number of anonymous U.S. officials, speaking on the condition that they not be identified, have been suggesting that U.S. forces should consider conducting unilateral counterterrorism operations inside Pakistan. That would very likely stir a political backlash in the country. "There is a sense in our public opinion that this relationship is heading south," Akram said, adding that there is a "trust deficit" between the two governments.
Pakistan, for its part, insists that it has been working hard to crack down on extremists, including al Qaeda operatives based in the tribal areas. And the price has been substantial. Pakistan has lost as many as 1,000 soldiers battling extremists in the country's western tribal regions, according to Akram.
Akram addressed recent remarks by opposition politician and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who is trying to return to Pakistan from self-exile on October 18 and run for prime minister early next year. Bhutto told BBC America that she would consider allowing U.S. forces to directly pursue al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden into Pakistan if Washington learned of his whereabouts. Akram is skeptical: "I do not think any Pakistani leader can give carte blanche like that to anyone."
Looking at the U.S. strategy against terrorism, Akram was critical of the U.S. government's overwhelming emphasis on military and intelligence efforts rather than on staging a more comprehensive effort to win the "hearts and minds" of Muslims around the world. "We have not seen the kind of concentrated effort that needs to be undertaken," Akram says, expressing his skepticism about the success of former Bush adviser Karen Hughes in her role heading up the State Department's public diplomacy program. "I have not really been able to see whether actions of the department can offset the negative things we see, not just in Pakistan, but across the world."
Akram's remarks come at a time when Pakistan has been undergoing its own political crisis. President Pervez Musharraf has been facing increased domestic protests about his dual role as president and Army chief ahead of an October 6 election. This week, Musharraf said that if he was reelected, he would step down from the powerful post of Army chief and appoint a successor—Gen. Ashfaq Kiani, a former Pakistani spymaster.
When it comes to U.S. policy toward Pakistan, Akram said that he would like to see Washington focus on a broader range of topics of interest that country. First on his list is greater trade access to Pakistani exports such as textiles. He says Pakistan is also looking for increased transfer of key technological assistance, as well as enhanced cooperation on energy issues.