There's been some tough love in America's relationship with Pakistan lately. Both a recent standoff over foreign aid and the U.S. arrest of American citizen Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai on illegal lobbying charges have increased mistrust in an already unsteady partnership. But even with tensions high, this is not one of those relationships that either side can walk away from easily.
When it comes to the United States' geopolitical courtship with Pakistan, there aren't any other fish in the sea. America needs Pakistan, and Pakistan needs America. So, while the relationship is fraught, neither side has a better option than trying to hash things out. That process will dominate relations in the near term. "It's just going to be a difficult, tense relationship, but we'll keep muddling along," says Caroline Wadhams, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a progressive Washington-based think-tank. "I don't see a major break." [Read more about national security, terrorism, and the military.]
The most recent examples of tension stem, ironically, from the U.S. killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in early May. In the United States, the revelation that the most wanted man on Earth was in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad raised suspicions about whether the Pakistani government knew more than it had indicated about the terrorist's location. At the same time, Pakistani officials were irked by the United States conducting a unilateral raid within Pakistan's sovereign territory. Since then, the public points of contention seem to be piling up, mostly over matters of trust and transparency.
Last week, in one of the most recent tussles, the government of Pakistan protested the Department of Justice's charges against Fai, who allegedly used his group, the Kashmiri American Council, to illegally channel as much as $4 million from Pakistan's government to influence Washington lawmakers promote the Kashmir cause. If the federal charges stick, Fai, and his associate, Zaheer Ahmad, would be guilty for conspiracy to act as unregistered foreign agents under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. The law requires that any person working in the United States on behalf of a foreign country fully disclose his or her affiliation, funding, and activities.
Kashmir itself has long been an awkward issue for the United States—which is allied with both India and Pakistan—and one that has Pakistan especially worried. The region, which remains within India's borders, has been part of an ongoing territorial battle for more than half a century as the centerpiece of conflict between the two nations. As India becomes more of a world power, Pakistan grows increasingly fearful that its very existence could be threatened. But despite attempts—like the one for which Fai is being charged—to get the United States involved on Kashmir, Americans have remained largely impartial.
The lobbying scandal adds to the rift that stemmed from the U.S. decision to withhold $800 million of military aid from Pakistan, a move that was made public by the New York Times on June 9. It also came after the United States and international human rights organizations raised questions about the involvement of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence with the killing of Pakistani journalist, Syed Saleem Shahzad, whose body was found in June. Not to mention, people in Pakistan have complained about the United States' covert drone attacks against militants there. [Read more news on Pakistan.]
While these incidents surely contribute to what appears to be a breaking point on the surface, according to Walter Andersen, associate director of the South Asia Studies Program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, the work happening behind the scenes between the United States and Pakistan seems to be more cooperative. Pakistan, after all, would be hopeless without U.S. aid money, and Pakistan plays an important cross-border role in ensuring American success in Afghanistan and in fighting terrorist organizations. "You have two games operating here: the public game and the private—which is the more important one?" he says. "The public one is a lot of chest-beating to say, 'Oh, we're really going to stick it to those bad guys on the other side.' The private one is a recognition that we really need each other because there are important objectives, and therefore, we quietly operate to get things done." [See our political cartoon gallery on Afghanistan.]
There have been talks, for example, between top military leaders from the two countries. And although some in Congress have pushed for cutting off aid to Pakistan, that's not likely going to happen. On Thursday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee overwhelmingly voted down an amendment to a bill that would have cut off aid to Pakistan completely. However, in an effort to encourage more transparency from Pakistan's government, the bill, as passed through committee, imposes more restrictions on civilian aid awarded in the future. While he doesn't expect the United States to return all of the $800 million in deferred aid money—and particularly not the money that was tied to a military training program which Pakistan cut off—Andersen says he's "almost certain" that much of the rest of it will go back to Pakistan in the end.
Wadhams says she appreciates how the Obama administration has tried to make the partnership work, especially considering the difficulties. "It's an important relationship, but the Pakistanis just make it really difficult to want to cooperate," says Wadhams. "They're trying to basically maintain it despite deep distrust on both sides and a series of incidents that have threatened disruption and have created a greater stress on the relationship."