Top Pakistani and US generals meet as analysts question the value of military talks

Gen. John Allen, commander of US troops in Afghanistan, is visiting Pakistan's military chief. Do these sorts of talks undermine America's professed goal of strengthening Pakistan's civilian government?

Anja Niedringhaus/AP
Gen. John Allen the top US commander in Afghanistan, salutes before he observes Memorial Day on May 28.

The top commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen, met with Pakistan's Chief of Army Staff Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani today to urge Pakistan to crack down on militants who launch cross-border attacks into Afghanistan. 

Military-to-military meetings are common between the two countries, especially as Pakistan’s military apparatus has had the power there. But as the civilian government and the courts begin to establish themselves in line with more democratic norms, some are questioning how good military-level meetings are for Pakistan’s democracy.

Amid the deterioration of US-Pakistan relations, some US officials say Washington should take a different tack and circumvent the military to talk directly to the civilian government. By negotiating primarily with the Pakistan military, the argument goes, the US inadvertently strengthens Pakistan's Army, rather than civilian rule, even as the military undermines American interests in Afghanistan.

Though the premise is correct, according to Stephen Cohen and Moseed Yusuf in an op-ed in The New York Times, circumventing the military is just as ill conceived “as was past support for Pakistan's military dictators.”

“American attempts to actively exploit Pakistan's civil-military disconnect are likely to end up strengthening right-wing rhetoric in Pakistan, create even more space for security-centric policies, and further alienate the Pakistani people from the United States,” write Mr. Cohen and Mr. Yusuf.

The two countries have been at loggerheads ever since NATO airstrikes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers and injured an additional 13 at the Salala military checkpoint close to the Afghan border in November. Pakistan retaliated by closing supply routes to ISAF forces. A 14-point parliamentary resolution requesting an apology for the Salala incident, along with more funds for use of Pakistani motorways to transport supplies, has been met with US reluctance. Reports yesterday indicate that reopening NATO supply routes would be at the top of the agenda, along with border coordination.

Pakistan's foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, is currently leading negotiations on the NATO supply routes with the US, and Kayani has referred the US to the civilian government on the question of reopening the border after the Salala incident. The military continues to define key parts of Pakistani foreign policy, but there is a public attempt to boost the civilian government. However, the seemingly similar interests in maintaining a defiant stance vis-a-vis the US comes from a broadly-shared frustration with US foreign policy toward Pakistan.

Conversations about a US decision to stop talking altogether with the military or the civilian branch of Pakistan is an indication that the US thinks of Pakistan as a clear cut division between civilian and military elites that largely disagree on their approach to the US. That assumption is wrong. But, say the analysts, maintaining relations with Pakistan's military and security agencies as well as the civilian government is essential for intelligence cooperation in the long run.

Still, if democratically minded activists within Pakistan had it their way, any cooperation with Pakistan on security matters should always go through a people's assembly. 

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