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Why is US Secretary of Defence Panetta so angry?

June 11, 2012 14:59 IST

It was one thing to hold India to ransom and periodically threaten nuclear blackmail. But it was not going to work against the US. The US, as always, learned the hard way that it was not or need not be all that dependent on Pakistani cooperation and generosity, says Vikram Sood.

US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta was in New Delhi for a short visit after the Shangri-La conference in Singapore which was not attended by the Chinese nor by the Pakistanis. Secretary Panetta had come here after meeting his counterparts in Vietnam and Cambodia. While he was here he was effusive in his hopes about the future prospects of India US partnership, cooperation and collaboration in many security related spheres. The visitor repeatedly talked about India US possibilities which must have gladdened many Indian hearts. Yet our official reaction appeared subdued.

It is possible ours is a policy decision for reasons one does not know but it would be tragic if we did not react merely because the decision was not to take a decision. So long as we remember all the time that the US remains the most important power globally even though it makes more than its share of mistakes, sometimes takes decisions that we are genuinely unable to accept or even appreciate as it impinges adversely on our interests and can be fickle as well.

Nevertheless, there is no country that can afford not to be friendly with the US and also that no country will jeopardise its interests with US for our sake. So when Panetta came, hopefully we would have heard him seriously, without being smug or cynical. It is well known that India is in the market looking for defence equipment including that from the US. New Delhi would remain hesitant so long as the intrusive and restrictive US laws like the LSA (Logistics Support Agreement) and CISMOA (Communications, Interoperability Security Management Agreement) are made applicable to defence purchases from the US. In contrast to the warming of India-US ties, the US-Pakistan relationship has soured.

No one would have failed to notice that Panetta by passed Islamabad and Rawalpindi to land in Kabul from where he launched another broadside against Pakistan. This was a reflection of the state of the US-Pakistan relationship at present where the US has expressed its frustration at continued Pakistani intransigence. A word of caution here; it is quite possible that this outburst was part of an election rhetoric for audiences back home. Come November and this window of opportunity may close or shut partially.

US-Pakistan relations already in a trough over the Raymond Davis issue, suffered another setback after the Osama bin Laden killing and the Salala incident worsened the situation even further. Pakistan used this injured pride to cover up for the embarrassment over the Osama killing, blocked the NATO supply route to recover lost prestige, exhibit ability to stand up for Pakistan's sovereign rights and make some money in the bargain. The move backfired.

The trump card of threatening to go under unless helped had been played for too long and far too often and it no longer worked. The world's superpower was annoyed; very very annoyed indeed. Consequently, having pushed itself into yet another corner, there are no more tricks up Pakistan's sleeve.

There have been periods in the past when US-Pakistan relations have had their highs and lows but they mostly related to Pakistan's numerous India specific adventures and its nuclear ambitions. The strategic aims of the two allies were always totally different. Pakistan saw events as an opportunity to get even with, and more, secure against India while the US pursued its global agenda.

Consequently, Pakistan did what it always did -- it used the US whenever it could and cooperated whenever it had to. Pakistan's rulers missed their best opportunity in 2001 to seriously get rid of the pariah status forever by whole hearted co-operation in the Bush War on Terror. It reaped in billions even as its co-operation remained half hearted at best and duplicitous most of the time while it shored up its terror assets not only against India and Afghanistan but even against NATO and the US.

Pakistan's rulers had reduced their country to a rentier state and the US-Pakistan relationship had become purely a transactional one. The country's territory was on hire for bases, guns and gunmen for hire in the jihad and now, much like a Mafioso, began to demand ransom per NATO truck before allowing them to transit through Pakistani territory.

Clearly Uncle Sam was not buying this; definitely not for the present. The generals in Pakistan had directly challenged vital American security interests in the region in election year. They had harboured, assisted and advised groups like the Taliban and the Haqqani Network working against US interests some one that Admiral Mike Mullen had last year described as a veritable arm of the Pakistan intelligence. They had used their nuclear umbrella to promote various terrorist groups against India and now seemed to be using the same tactics against the US. And they provoked the US further when the Pakistani local court in the Pakhtoon-Khwa province handed down a 33-year sentence to Dr Shakil Afridi, the man who had led the Americans to Osama. Barack Obama was livid.

It was one thing to hold India to ransom and periodically threaten nuclear blackmail, often through surrogates, it was not going to work against the US. The US, as always, learned the hard way that it was not or need not be all that dependent on Pakistani cooperation and generosity and Pakistan was probably beginning to realise that it had exaggerated its own importance. The US and NATO had been working out alternative northern routes; not the cheapest not the quickest but not subject to the whims of what was now increasingly seen as an unreliable partner.

Pakistani leaders keep forgetting the first principle of negotiations -- always have an escape clause handy for an honourable exit. Nations do not negotiate with superpowers only through obduracy because soon enough patience wears out and the law of diminishing returns takes over.

Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari had literally gate-crashed into the Chicago conference last month but was snubbed by Obama. The various cancellations of visits by the Pakistan military top brass including General Ashfaq Kayani who did not go to the Shangri-La Conference in June and the ISI chief General Zahoorul Islam to meet his CIA counterpart are symptomatic of the acute mutual distrust and dislike between the two governments. The financial restrictions on Pakistan by the US Congress are indicative of a growing impatience and irritation with Pakistan. The continuing drone attacks only indicates that the US is not about to relent. The real pinch that will hurt Pakistan would be when the International Monetary Fund takes a view.

Pakistan needs IMF assistance to pay back previous assistance. The most likely tactic will be to wait till the very end when reserves touch rock bottom, put in a request with IMF for additional assistance and hope to be able to persuade the US to recommend this. If the US does not make any recommendation then Pakistan is really in a mess and at the deep end. Alternatively, it just might revert to form, seek a separate bargain and do what it has done all along -- be magnanimous, something Pakistan expects the world to do for it.

Bailing out Pakistan may not be that simple this time and the US may well call the Pakistani bluff of economic, political and terror and nuclear blackmail. There has probably been a reappraisal of policy in the White House and in his re-election year, President Obama may have accepted the assessment that Pakistan is a part of the problem and not a part of the solution.

If that be so, then US-Pakistan relations which are cold at present may go into deep freeze, at least until there is a reappraisal of Pakistani attitude and behaviour after the elections.

Vikram Sood