Washington and Islamabad are looking more like enemies than allies in a war, thus threatening the US-led war on terror, says Amir Mir
As the relationship between Pakistan and the United States tumbles through one of its roughest patches ever, yet another round of talks has failed to secure an agreement on reopening the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation's supply routes into Afghanistan.
The talks failed in the wake of Pakistan Army Chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani's refusal to meet US Assistant Defence Secretary Peter Lavoy, who had travelled to Pakistan to try to resolve the dispute. The refusal prompted Washington to immediately withdraw negotiators from Islamabad, amid reports that the Barack Obama administration has finally warned Pakistan that it could be declared an enemy country in case Islamabad doesn't come to terms with the United States.
According to well-informed diplomatic sources in Islamabad, General Ashfaq Kayani refused to meet Lavoy to convey the security establishment's displeasure over US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta's recent warning.
Panetta had warned that Washington is losing its patience over Pakistan's failure to eliminate safe havens for insurgents who attack US troops in neighbouring Afghanistan. Panetta lashed out at Pakistan and the Al Qaeda-linked Haqqani Network during a visit to Kabul.
Earlier, President Obama had made clear the US's anger at Islamabad's refusal to reopen the supply line at the NATO summit in Chicago, where he refused to hold a one-on-one meeting with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari. Pakistan's reluctance to reopen the route is linked to concerns about political backlash at home, where anti-American sentiment is rampant, despite receiving billions of dollars in US aid in the past decade.
Pentagon spokesman George Little has already announced that the United States has withdrawn negotiators from Pakistan after talks failed to produce an agreement on reopening NATO supply routes. The American team of negotiators had been in Pakistan for nearly six weeks, he said, as US officials had believed they were close to a deal with Islamabad to lift the blockade on NATO convoys. But no breakthrough seemed imminent and there was no scheduled date for a resumption of the negotiations, Little added.
The Pakistan government announced its decision to shut its border to NATO supply convoys in November 2011, after a botched US air strike killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at Salala check post on the Pak-Afghan border.
As several round of talks to resolve the stalemate between the two sides failed, Lavoy had travelled to Pakistan last week amidst reports that the two countries are working on drafting a possible US apology over the Salala episode. The United States had initially agreed to apologise, but changed its mind after aides warned President Barack Obama that such a move could harm his re-election campaign.
Lavoy was about to meet General Kayani in Islamabad to work through the contentious issue when Panetta issued his warning. Panetta's statement, coupled with the rejection of the Pakistani proposals by the visiting American negotiators to charge steep fees of several thousand dollars for each container truck crossing the border, prompted General Kayani to cancel his scheduled meeting with Lavoy.
As the US assistance defence secretary had to return to Washington empty-handed, Pakistan faced a serious threat of being declared an 'enemy country' if Islamabad doesn't come to terms with Washington on the resumption of ground lines of communications for NATO.
While downplaying the tension between the two allies, Pakistan's Ambassador to the United States Sherry Rehman said on Monday that the return of an American negotiating team from Islamabad does not represent an institutional US pullout.
Responding to a question about the US negotiating team's return from Pakistan, she said, "For our part, I have been saying this again and again, Pakistan is seeking to be part of the solution for NATO and the United States as they transfer security in Afghanistan, not an obstacle. On the NATO supplies, the way forward is more related to other issues; we certainly did not close the NATO supply route for leveraging a price advantage".
Well-placed diplomats agree that Washington and Islamabad are looking more like enemies than allies in a war, thus threatening the US-led fight against Taliban and Al Qaeda militants based in the country's largely lawless tribal areas.
The US is getting impatient because the whole machinery in that country would be diverting to the electioneering process after a month and Independence Day would be the deadline for the White House to take a decision about the nature of its future ties with Pakistan. Under these circumstances, senior American officials, who have a huge task ahead of repairing relations with Pakistan, have now engaged Britain to play a mediatory role between the two sides.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague is reaching Pakistan on June 12 apparently to help the two estranged allies resolve the deadlock. Hague will meet Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar to discuss the outcome of the exhaustive Pak-US talks, reopening of NATO supply lines as well as regional security.
Senior government officials in Islamabad believe the British foreign secretary's visit is meant to finalise the price tag between Pakistan and US for reopening NATO supply lines.
They were upbeat that the stand-off between Pakistan and the United States would be resolved soon under an amicable package deal that Pakistan has been seeking in its talks with the United States.