Tomorrow, President Obama meets Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani of Pakistan on the margins of the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul. A central topic is likely to be the status of relations between Pakistan and the United States, which have been severely strained in the aftermath of a military operation gone bad along the Afghan-Pakistan border in November. During the operation, due to what military investigators described as mistakes at higher echelons on both sides, U.S. and Pakistani forces exchanged fire. Twenty-four Pakistani soldiers were killed, inflaming public opinion in Pakistan, suspending military cooperation and putting its fragile civilian government on the defensive.
The other casualty in the episode was U.S. public diplomacy in Pakistan. Not so long ago, the United States and Pakistan were speaking of a long-term strategic partnership. But after a string of events over the past 15 months, the relationship is in intensive care. Even before the November border incident, two-thirds of Pakistanis viewed the United States as an enemy, not a partner. A pillar of the Obama administration’s regional strategy starting in 2009 was transforming the relationship with Pakistan’s civilian government – and the Pakistani people. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the late Special Representative Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, together with U.S. Ambassadors Anne Patterson and Cameron Munter, began a broad and candid conversation with different segments of the Pakistani population that chipped away at years of pent-up frustration and misperception. An aggressive U.S. response to destructive flooding in Pakistan in 2010 helped as well.
But these public diplomacy gains were easily swept aside last year. First, an intelligence operative with diplomatic status killed two Pakistanis on motorbikes (he claimed in self-defense) that led to a protracted standoff over treaty obligations under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Pakistan released him after negotiating compensation for the victims’ families but the public diplomacy damage was severe. Three months later, there was the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, a justifiable action from the standpoint of U.S. security, but nonetheless perceived in Pakistan as a violation of sovereignty. And there is Pakistani public frustration with on going drone operations, which the government in Islamabad is more familiar with than it lets on publicly.
When it comes to public diplomacy, this is as difficult as it gets. But does this matter? Well, when it comes to reducing the ongoing threat of violent extremism, there is no country in the world more important than Pakistan. Pakistan’s links to the Taliban, the Mumbai attack and domestic plots involving David Headley, Faisal Shahzad and Najibullah Zazi are well chronicled. This is not to indict the entire country – Pakistan has suffered far more casualties from terrorism than the United States. It is to say that the U.S. cannot defeat, dismantle and deter al Qaeda and its affiliates, the reason we are militarily engaged in the region, without building a stable long-term relationship with Pakistan’s government and its people.
This will be a lengthy and difficult process, which can be the starting point for tomorrow’s meeting between the President and Prime Minister. They should begin the recovery by first acknowledging the pervasive mistrust that handicaps the relationship and undeniably contributed to the tragedy in November. Notwithstanding political tensions on both sides, they need to reaffirm that, once Pakistan completes its review, high-level delegations from both countries will reconvene to reach new understandings on cooperation and support. Ultimately, if the United States seeks a partnership with Pakistan, and vice versa, both countries need to be more forthcoming.