I left Islamabad bound for Canberra hours before NATO strikes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in Mohmand Agency in the early hours of November 26. The strikes have left many wondering how US-Pakistan relations can possibly survive after perhaps one of the most difficult years in the bilateral relationship’s history. Think 2011 and think Osama bin Laden, Raymond Davis, drone strikes and NATO strikes. Well, that at least is the message permeating all forms of media in Pakistan.
Like Michael Wesley, I am in no doubt that Pakistan-US relations are in big trouble. I have lived and breathed all things Pakistan over the past 18 months and the view from Islamabad is not encouraging. The Pakistani street is angry about many things, but the bull’s-eye falls squarely on the US as public enemy No.1, spurred on by the anti-American rhetoric and conspiracy theories espoused by the media, the mosque and the ever-popular Imran Khan.
The US needs to realise that its actions on Pakistani soil are noticeably shifting threat perceptions of Pakistanis. If public opinion keeps moving the way it has, the US might unseat India as the biggest perceived threat to Pakistan’s survival.
For the first time in Pakistan’s history, its strategic calculus seems to be shifting slightly — from its myopic focus on India for the past 64 years, to now include the US as a potential threat to its existence. What is worrying is that the military as well as the mass public perceive this. Jeffrey Goldberg and Marc Ambinder highlighted this in December’s issue of The Atlantic, which reported that Pakistani nuclear warheads were being continually moved to avoid detection by the US (and not just India).
The Pakistani public is growing louder in calling for a wholesale overhaul of its relationship with the US. Central to this is the perception that US actions violate and undermine Pakistani sovereignty.
Following the NATO strike, Pakistan’s cabinet agreed to review its co-operation with the US, NATO and ISAF, announcing that “despite its continued efforts to play a positive role for stability and peace in countering terrorism in the region, the sacrifices of the nation have not been recognised”. An assessment was conducted remarkably swiftly and all existing counter-terrorism co-operation with the US has been scrapped pending a review.
The US will have to work hard to win back Pakistan’s trust, but most in the US would say, “why bother?”. In a survey conducted on November 27, one day after the NATO strike, 55% of Americans viewed Pakistan as an enemy. Among Republicans, 70% considered Pakistan an enemy, while 47% of Democrats shared this view.
Pakistanis do not view America any more favourably, with a Pew survey conducted in June 2011 finding that 69% of Pakistanis view the US as an enemy.
The sands are shifting in Pakistan. There is a growing belief that Pakistan has the upper hand because the US now needs Pakistan more than Pakistan needs the US. A political settlement in Afghanistan will not work without Pakistan. The US understands Pakistan’s potential as a spoiler and knows Islamabad is hedging its bets by supporting the Haqqani network and Pakistani Taliban. If the US is to achieve any kind of smooth and respectable transition out of Afghanistan, it needs Pakistan.
*This article first appeared on The Interpreter