US relations with Pakistan have reached a new low after Pentagon press secretary George Little announced Monday that the United States was withdrawing its team sent to negotiate the reopening of NATO supply routes. No date has been set for the team's return to Islamabad.
The announcement comes after a tumultuous week – and year – in US-Pakistan relations. Pakistan agreed, on principle, to reopen the supply routes in the runup to the mid-May NATO summit in Chicago. But negotiations between the two countries have been mired in demands from both sides, as well as controversial events and statements.
“The relationship is very bad. The two sides seem to be talking past each other. The US needs to understand that Pakistan is also accountable to its population [as elections approach], just like the White House is. And Pakistan needs to be doing more to address the militant issue,” says Kamran Shafi, a security analyst.
The US and Pakistan have been trying to set up new terms to reopen NATO supply routes through Pakistan for several weeks. The routes were closed after a NATO raid on a check post near the Afghan border killed 26 Pakistani soldiers and injured an additional 13 on Nov. 26.
With the routes through Pakistan closed, US forces now have to use much longer and far more costly routes via Central Asia to supply troops in Afghanistan. According to some experts, that may also translate to delays in the 2013 pullout, when NATO troops plan to exit Afghanistan.
One of the major sticking points to a reopening of NATO supply lines was the conviction of the Pakistani doctor who helped the US track Osama bin Laden.
Two days after the summit, Pakistan sentenced Shakil Afridi, the doctor who helped identify Mr. bin Laden via a fake vaccination campaign, to 33 years in prison. The Senate Appropriations Committee promptly cut $33 million in aid to Pakistan – $1 million for every year of his sentence.
Tribal documents have subsequently revealed that Dr. Afridi was sentenced for actively supporting the banned militant group, Lashkar-e-Islam, and its leader Mangal Bagh. In a text message to journalists, Lashkar-e-Islam denied the link. In a press briefing, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said that the alleged link “doesn't change [the US] view” and that the US will continue to “urge the Pakistani Government to consider his appeal.”
“The Americans have hardened their positions after the Afridi case. They were furious. Dr. Afridi's conviction came at a bad time and set us back in our negotiations with the US,” says Fawad Chaudhury, an adviser to Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.
The recent negotiations come after a year of an increasingly deteriorating relationship. The deaths of three Pakistanis in the hands of CIA agents in the beginning of last year, the US Navy Seal raid that killed bin Laden and was seen as a breach of Pakistan's sovereignty, and the border attack in November have been detrimental to the partnership.
During a visit to Afghanistan last week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that the US was “reaching the limits of patience” with Pakistan for providing militant havens. His comments came on the back of a two-day tour of India – Pakistan's key adversary in the region – where he announced that the US would continue much-criticized drone attacks in Pakistan a day after a CIA strike killed Al Qaeda's No. 2, Abu Yahya al-Libi.
Next, Pakistan's Foreign Office issued a statement Saturday saying that Mr. Panetta was “oversimplifying.” The statement went on to call Panetta’s comment “misplaced and unhelpful in bringing about peace and stability in the region.”
Then there were reports that Army Gen. Ashfaq Pervaiz Kayani refused to meet Assistant Defense Secretary Peter Levoy when the latter landed in Islamabad for three days of negotiations, with an alleged stern message to Pakistan's civil and military leaders.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague also voiced concern over the impasse.
“We look to the United States and Pakistan to work successfully together. And of greater concern to us, even than those lines of communication, would be a rift between the United States and Pakistan,” said Mr. Hague at a press briefing on Tuesday.
Also today, a senior US official told Reuters that Pakistan should "bite the bullet" and re-open the routes to ease tensions with the US.
Mr. Chaudhury, however, remains hopeful.
“The negotiations have not stalled. The team is going to return, and we will hopefully reach a conclusion to this issue very soon,” says Chaudhury.