ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Like the rest of the world, Pakistan watched keenly the electrifying finish to the U.S. presidential election that culminated in President Obama’s victory. But for most Pakistanis, the enthusiasm stops there.
Any change in Pakistan’s caustic relationship with the U.S. in the next four years is likely to be viewed through the prism of Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal region -- two war-ravaged places where Washington and Islamabad desperately want lasting stability but disagree sharply about how to achieve it.
Both Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney touted similar Afghanistan-Pakistan game plans that involve commitments to a U.S. troop pullout from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and a continued reliance on drone missile strikes to cripple Al Qaeda and other Islamic militant groups ensconced in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
Pakistanis remain deeply skeptical of Washington’s withdrawal strategy in Afghanistan. They worry the U.S. will maintain a strong presence in Afghanistan long after 2014, principally as a perch from which to ensure extremist groups do not gain access to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons arsenal. And a continuation, at least for now, of the drone campaign — seen by most Pakistanis as a blatant encroachment of their country’s sovereignty — will perpetuate the intense animosity many Pakistanis have for Washington’s policies.
“The perception here is that U.S. policy is not going to undergo a major change, in terms of the Af-Pak region,” said Raza Rumi, an analyst with the Jinnah Institute, an Islamabad think tank. “U.S. troops will withdraw in 2014. ... But the security establishment—the military, intelligence agencies, defense analysts—feels the U.S. won’t disappear from the region. It will be watching Pakistan closely. More importantly, it will keep Pakistan’s nuclear assets under scrutiny.
“So the Pakistani state is slightly edgy as to what the U.S. wants once Afghanistan is over,” Rumi added. “How will the U.S. observe Pakistan, and what steps will it take?”
The U.S. troop pullout hinges on the hope that Afghan security forces can assume responsibility for securing the majority ethnic Pashtun nation after 2014. The U.S. wants Afghanistan to stabilize, but it also wants a post-2014 government in Kabul that stymies any possibility of an Al Qaeda resurgence.
As a country that shares a 1,400-mile border with Afghanistan and is home to 27 million Pashtun, Pakistan also wants its western neighbor to stabilize. Equally important for Pakistani leaders, however, is that the Afghan Taliban be allowed to stake out a share in power once U.S. troops leave. Pakistani leaders see this as the best recipe for averting civil war, which if it broke out, would likely embolden Pakistan’s own insurgent group, the Pakistani Taliban, to rev up its fight against Islamabad.
Complicating Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan is the relationship that its intelligence community maintains with the Haqqani network, a wing of the Afghan Taliban that uses Pakistan’s tribal belt as sanctuary and poses one of the deadliest threats to Western and Afghan forces in Afghanistan. Pakistan has repeatedly refused to clamp down on Haqqani strongholds in the tribal region of North Waziristan, and that has eroded the level of trust that Washington has for Islamabad as a potential player in Afghanistan’s future.
“If Pakistan continues to support [the Haqqani network and the Afghan Taliban] and as a matter of policy encourages them, then I don’t think the U.S.-Pakistan relationship will improve,” said security analyst Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general. “The relationship can only improve if Pakistan cooperates in trying to influence [Afghan Taliban leaders] to negotiate and bring about a peaceful settlement.”
And yet, other roadblocks in the relationship cast doubt on the prospects for better U.S-Pakistan ties in coming years. Anti-American sentiment is more than just a reality in Pakistan — it's valuable cannon fodder for the country’s leading political players. It gives the government a scapegoat for its own failures in coping with terrorism, a ragged economy and other national ailments.
With Pakistan bracing for its own national elections in the spring, the country “is not going to be in a position to view the U.S. neutrally,” Rumi said. “All political parties treat anti-American sentiment like a gold mine to exploit. If you whip up the American bogey, you shift blame to a foreign power, and you don’t take responsibility for the domestic problems we have.”
As bad as the relationship is, it isn’t likely to sever irreparably. Though the alliance was severely tested last year by the secret U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad and errant American airstrikes that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, the Pakistani military remains heavily dependent on U.S. aid, and the U.S. needs the Pakistani army to continue to battle domestic militancy.
“The real thing that matters in terms of aid is the linkage between Pakistan’s military machine and the U.S.,” Rumi said. “There’s an interdependence ... so the relationship isn’t going to wither away.”
At the same time, most Pakistanis doubt the relationship will improve, particularly with Obama in the White House. When Obama first won election in 2008, Pakistanis viewed him as a refreshing change from George W. Bush, who was criticized for his ardent support for military leader Pervez Musharraf and for use of drone missile strikes against militants in the tribal belt.
Under Obama, Washington’s reliance on the drone campaign rose considerably. Other events, including the Bin Laden raid and the killing of two Pakistanis by a CIA contractor in Lahore in early 2011, led Pakistanis to view Obama’s presidency as belligerent and unwilling to heed their country’s interests.
“This reelection of Obama won’t bring any good to Pakistan,” said Waqar Ahmad Sultan, 45, a jeweler at an Islamabad market. “Drone strikes continue, and Pakistan’s economy has been badly hurt in recent years. Our government is corrupt, and Washington supports our government. Now that Obama has been reelected, I have a feeling Pakistan will continue to suffer this corruption for four more years.”
-- Alex Rodriguez
Photo: Pakistanis burn a mock U.S. flag during a protest against drone attacks in Multan, Pakistan, on Oct. 25. Credit: European Pressphoto Agency / Stringer.