Britain’s top diplomat in Islamabad was summoned Monday for a dressing down by the foreign minister of Pakistan as the fallout continued from suggestions last week by Prime Minister David Cameron that Pakistan was engaged in the “export” of terrorism.
Back in the United Kingdom, the government’s finest silverware was being polished ahead a visit later this week by Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, as Mr. Cameron prepared to mount a charm offensive to defuse the first major diplomatic row of his three-month-old premiership.
Cameron chose a visit last week to India, a foreign policy priority of the UK and a nuclear rival of Pakistan, to suggest that elements in his host's northern neighbor were "looking both ways" on Islamist violence and "promoting the export of terror" – remarks that were taken to refer to alleged support for the Taliban by Pakistan’s secretive ISI intelligence service. His remarks came after the online whistleblower WikiLeaks released more than 91,000 secret documents that appeared to show the ISI's continued ties with the Taliban and other militant groups.
Cameron's comments, which threw Mr. Zardardi’s UK visit into doubt, have led to criticism of the new British prime minister for dangerously poor judgment as well as plaudits for his making good on promises by his aides that he would pursue a new “plain-speaking” diplomacy.
Others wonder if last week’s remarks stemmed from Britain working in concert with the United States, which has been trying to improve its relations with Islamabad of late, with American officials reiterating in recent days that they recognize Pakistan’s effort in the war in Afghanistan.
“At the same time, we know that US officials are extremely concerned about Pakistan’s so-called ‘double game’ in Afghanistan, and so it is just possible that Mr. Cameron has decided to play the bad cop to Mr. Obama’s good cop by saying it as it is,” says Farzana Shaikh, an authority on Pakistan and associate fellow at London’s Chatham House think tank.
“The difficulty is that Mr. Cameron’s statement has come at a time which is extremely crucial and delicate when the international community, led by the US, are trying their utmost to get Pakistan fully onside in reaching some kind of viable settlement in Afghanistan, and Mr. Cameron’s statement could be a set back to these efforts," he says.
Trouble for security cooperation
For now, the episode has upset the long-running and expansive collaboration between Britain and Pakistan on intelligence and security matters.
A trip to the UK by Pakistani intelligence officials was canceled last weekend, and Zardari has been under pressure call off his visit. While in Paris on Monday holding talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Zardari appeared to deliver a jab at Cameron, saying that France considers Pakistan "a reliable partner."
Briefing journalists Monday, Pakistani Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira said Zardari would present Cameron with "the facts on the ground" at a meeting Friday in the prime minister’s rural residence, Chequers.
"The president of Pakistan will explain and have a dialogue and good discussion, and he will explain the facts to the new government over here," Mr. Kaira said.
"We hope that the new leadership over here, when they get the exact picture, will agree with us."
In the long run, the row is expected to have little real impact on relations between the two – especially as Pakistan’s old colonial master remains its second-largest trading partner.
But some suggest that Cameron’s remarks will linger in the minds of one particular section of Britain’s population.
“If there is going to be any real fallout – although it remains to be seen – then that will probably surface among the 1 million Britons of Pakistani descent,” adds Dr. Shaikh. “I think that Mr. Cameron’s statement will cause anger and frustration within that community. This could have some quite significant implications in relation to the radicalization of some sections.
“If Pakistan also chooses to be difficult at this point about security cooperation in relation to those Britons of Pakistani descent, then that could be important.”