U.S.-Pakistan Relations Remain Strained After Obama and Gilani Meet in Seoul

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Gilani and U.S. President Barack Obama met Tuesday in the highest-level contact since American commandos killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden during a raid in Abottabad without the consent or knowledge of Islamabad. The meeting took place during the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, as the two uneasy allies took some time to discuss their turbulent relationship which has declined since the death of 24 Pakistani soldiers by a NATO strike last November. Although the two leaders embraced dialogue and remained in diplomatic decorum, tensions between the two countries will likely remain unchanged in the coming months.

“There have been times – I think we should be frank – in the last several months where those relations have experienced strains,” said Obama as he sought to thaw the chill between Pak.-U.S. relations which have experienced new lows since the killing of Pakistani soldiers last November and subsequent American approval that those involved in the deadly strike will not be charged. Obama recognized Pakistan’s sovereignty and urged the nuclear-armed nation to improve cooperation in counter-terrorism tactics. Obama also stressed that the two sides need to embrace a balanced approach that recognizes Pakistan sovereignty but also acknowledges America's concern for national security and its need to “battle terrorists who have targeted [U.S.] in the past.”

Gilani told Obama, “we want to work with you” as he too stressed the importance of the relationship between the two nations during a crucial time as the U.S. prepares to withdraw most troops from Afghanistan by 2014. Pakistan’s disapproval of American tactics reached new highs when U.S. Navy SEAL’s killed bin Laden in his Abbottabad house, only a few steps from a major Pakistani military academy. It left the powerful military and ISI irate as they demanded an end to U.S. drone attacks on Pakistani territory, which have been highly unpopular among the general population. Continued accusations by American politicians that Pakistan harbors terrorists and supports terrorism has also inflamed relations.

Pakistani history reveals that there is a deep level of mistrust when it comes to an American presence in South Asia. During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the CIA funneled money to Pakistan's ISI to help train mujahideens who were fighting against the Soviets. For the Americans, it was only a proxy war to diminish Soviet influence in the region. Once the Soviets retreated, explains John Esposito, author of “Unholy War,” Americans left and Pakistan was left to cope with thousands of fighters who were returning home. The current situation in Afghanistan is no different. American forces will leave a highly unpopular, decade-old war (69% of Americans want out) that has killed many American soldiers and Afghan civilians but one that has also increased terrorism within Pakistan.

Violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty will not win the hearts of Pakistanis who are wary of American presence in Afghanistan. At the same time, Pakistan’s ISI needs to be more cooperative and transparent when it comes to counter-insurgency efforts. If Pakistan really is playing a shadowy game, as its critics say, then Pak-U.S. relations will continue to decrease. America must also prove that it will continue to support the country even after troops withdraw, rather than leave the region a mess and let Pakistan sweep the garbage, similar to what they did after the Soviet withdrawal.