Kerry visits Pakistan to smooth relations. Will it work?

Despite Senator John Kerry's visit to Pakistan and his announced agreements to calm ties, the mistrustful relationship between the US and Pakistan is unlikely to change soon, warn analysts.

US Senator John Kerry (l.) shakes hands with Pakistan's Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani prior to their official talks at the Prime Minister's house in Islamabad, Pakistan, on Monday, May 16.

In a visit widely seen as an attempt to smooth relations between Pakistan and the US after the raid to kill Osama bin Laden two weeks ago, Sen. John Kerry called the two countries “strategic partners with a common enemy in terrorism” Monday.

Amid growing calls among US lawmakers to cut aid to Pakistan, suspected of harboring militants like Mr. bin Laden, Senator Kerry announced a series of steps he and Pakistan’s civilian and military officials agreed upon to improve ties, and announced that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would also visit Pakistan shortly. Despite these measures, however, the relationship’s underlying mistrust and duplicity are unlikely to change soon, warn analysts.

“You’ll go from crisis to crisis, you’ll hit rock bottom but pull through unless there is something really catastrophic, like another Times Square incident," says Moeed Yusuf, South Asia adviser at the US Institute of Peace in Washington.

The bin Laden raid left the public here outraged at a perceived violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty, with Pakistan’s opposition Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) party accusing the government of betraying its people. In a marathon 11-hour closed-door meeting of parliament last Friday, Lt. Gen. Shuja Pasha, head of the country’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, angrily denounced the US to much applause from lawmakers. He also denied that his agency had willingly given shelter to the leader of Al Qaeda.

Monday evening Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sought to assuage this anger, telling the media that Pakistan wasn't tipped off to the raid earlier for operational reasons only. “I have been deeply involved in the affairs of Pakistan and I didn’t know until after I received a call from the situation room of the White House,” he said.

Though he said that the US would not apologize for the raid, he also said that future operations in Pakistan would be conducted jointly. He then appealed to Pakistanis to decide whether their country would become a “haven for extremists or the tolerant democracy” envisioned at its creation in 1947, adding that the US is willing to help the country to that end.

Few experts, however, expect Pakistan’s weak civilian government to redress the imbalance that exists between it and the powerful military establishment, which continues to maintain ties with some militant groups that routinely attack US forces, such as the Haqqani network based along its border with Afghanistan.

“Both countries will try to leverage the operational and tactical advantages it has, and neither country will undermine its own strategic interests,” says Mosharraf Zaidi, a columnist, referring to support of the Haqqani network.

While both sides acknowledge this is a difficult relationship, the alternative appears too drastic to contemplate for now, says Mr. Zaidi. As long as the US has troops engaged in neighboring Afghanistan, the US needs Pakistan’s support for vital military supply lines. Concurrently, Pakistan’s inability to get its economy in order makes it dependent on US support for aid and the political support that allows it to get loans from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

“There is a patience threshold – with Pakistan it’s much higher than with other countries but there is always a threshold. They would probably like to part ways and move on but both sides realise that complete rupture of the relationship would be victory for terrorists,” says Yusuf, the analyst.

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