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04.14.11

Pakistan-U.S. Relations Frayed But Not Collapsing

Ever since CIA contractor Raymond Davis shot and killed two Pakistanis in the street, U.S.-Pak relations have spiraled downward. But as Ron Moreau reports from Islamabad, the situation is hardly as dire as many think.

No question: The partnership between U.S. and Pakistan appears to be in free fall. Over the past week, Pakistan has pressured the U.S. to slash the number of CIA officers, contractors, and U.S. Special Operations operating inside the country. That follows the drama over CIA contractor Raymond Davis who shot and killed two men on a Lahore street, back in January.

Joint operations between the CIA and Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agency—the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, or ISI—have been on ice since. Pakistan has demanded a halt to the U.S.’s drone attacks, but rather than heed the Pakistanis’ request, another U.S. drone hurled missiles at South Waziristan yesterday. Pakistani leaders? Enraged.

“It’s got a lot of band-aids over it,” says the US official. “Scar tissue is forming.”

But for all the talk of how serious the rift between the two countries has become—on its front page, the New York Times said the relationship was near collapse—the reality behind the schism doesn’t quite match the hype. Talking to officials on both sides makes it clear that intense talks are underway about the future of the U.S. in Pakistan, but according to a senior U.S. diplomat in Pakistan who couldn’t speak on the record, the U.S. is not being asked to drastically reduce its footprint. Surely this dust up could ultimately be debilitating to the partnership, but serious negotiations are continuing to find an acceptable way forward.

For Pakistan, the breaking point came with the Davis incident. The CIA contractor seems to have been operating without Pakistan’s knowledge. His crime unleashed a wave of anti-U.S. demonstrations, but more importantly it embarrassed the ISI. “There were just too many CIA movements and operations going on without our knowledge,” a senior ISI officer told The Daily Beast. “It made us look as if we were not in charge.”

In recent years, joint intelligence operations have led to the capture and killing of scores top al Qaeda and Taliban operatives. If U.S.-Pakistan cooperation were in fact to fizzle, clearly such operations would be compromised. Take, for instance, the 120 U.S. Special Operations troops who are training Pakistani paramilitary forces to patrol the tribal area. Losing them would mark a major setback for Pakistan’s flailing counter-insurgency effort.

To shore up the rift, the ISI’s director, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, flew to Washington this week to meet with CIA director Leon Panetta. Preliminary reports from their meeting suggest that Pakistan’s demands aren’t as unbridled as one might expect. Pasha reportedly made no specific demands on the withdrawal of U.S. personnel. He did not ask for a halt to, or even a reduction in, drone attacks. Instead, Islamabad’s chief concern seems to be more transparency as to what the U.S.’s hundreds of embassy, intelligence, and military personnel are up to day in and day out.

Rather than shoving each other away, talks in Washington and Islamabad suggest both sides are leaning toward a workable solution. “It’s really irrelevant to talk about numbers,” says the senior U.S. diplomat. “The idea of a reduction in cooperation or reduction in [the U.S.] footprint is fluid right now.” In other words, while no one has a clear picture of where the negotiations are heading, it’s unlikely that there will be a dramatic downsizing.

Strange as it may sound, part of the problem is plain old bureaucracy. Lack of coordination among the ISI, the Interior Ministry, and the Pakistani embassy in Washington has thrown diplomatic visas into disarray. As a result, some U.S. officers and officials are falling into illegal status in Pakistan by overstaying their visas. The inconveniences are ruffling feathers, but such diplomatic skirmishes are more procedural than political.

And the fact is that still the fight goes on. U.S. officials readily admit that tensions have been mounting, but U.S. advisers and Pakistani forces are continuing the battle against the Pakistani Taliban, the fierce group that’s been trying to regain a foothold in Mohmand tribal agency. “On the military side the military cooperation has continued even while there are discussions of what the [U.S.] footprint should look like,” the senior U.S. diplomat says. “Over the past three to four weeks it [cooperation] has gone up and down. But by and large the military cooperation on special issues has really been really good.”

Western diplomats in Pakistan largely agree that the driving force behind the move to reduce and rein in the huge American presence is Pakistani Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. A strong Pakistani nationalist, Kayani is determined to reassert as much control as possible over U.S. intelligence and military operations in the country. He and his fellow commanders fear that some of the unilateral U.S. intelligence activity could be aimed at gathering sensitive information on the details and whereabouts of the country’s more than 100 nuclear weapons.

Kayani also has to attune his actions to the politics within his own high command. He has to strike a balance between the sometimes conflicting views of his core commanders. Some are said to be both nationalist and anti-Western, while others believed to be less suspicious of and more open to the West. So to some degree Kayani has to appear to be standing up to the U.S. without subverting what is a beneficial relationship both economically and militarily to Pakistan.

It’s clearly not going to be easy to repair the rift. “It’s got a lot of band-aids over it,” says the U.S. official. “Scar tissue is forming.” But both sides seem to be doing their best to ensure that a series of compromises can save the relationship from further harm. “There is a real desire on both sides to continue it [the relationship] and move it forward. This is a relationship you can’t wad up and throw away on either side,” the official adds. Washington is hoping that Islamabad continues to see it that way.

Ron Moreau is Newsweek’s Afghanistan and Pakistan correspondent and has been covering the region for the magazine the past 10 years. Since he first joined Newsweek during the Vietnam War, he has reported extensively from Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America.