Tuesday, February 20, 2018

U.S., Pakistan beginning to look more like enemies

ISLAMABAD — You know a friendship has gone sour when you start making mean jokes about your friend in front of his most bitter nemesis.

So it was a bad sign last week when the U.S. defense secretary joshed in front of an audience of Indians about how Washington kept Pakistan in the dark about the raid that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden a year ago.

"They didn't know about our operation. That was the whole idea," Leon Panetta said with a chuckle at a Q&A session after a speech in New Delhi, raising laughs from the audience. The bin Laden raid by U.S. commandos in a Pakistani town infuriated Islamabad because it had no advance notice, and it was seen by Pakistan's powerful military as a humiliation.

The United States and Pakistan are starting to look more like enemies than allies, threatening the U.S. fight against Taliban and al-Qaida militants based in the country and efforts to stabilize neighboring Afghanistan before American troops withdraw.

Long plagued by frustration and mistrust, the relationship has plunged to its lowest level since the 9/11 attacks forced the countries into a tight but awkward embrace over a decade ago. The United States has lost its patience with Pakistan and taken the gloves off to make its anger clear.

"It has taken on attributes and characteristics now of a near adversarial relationship, even though neither side wants it to be that way," said Maleeha Lodhi, who was serving as Pakistan's ambassador to the U.S. at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and was key in hurriedly putting together the two countries' alliance.

The latest irritant is Pakistan's refusal to end its six-month blockade of NATO troop supplies meant for Afghanistan. Even if that issue is resolved, however, the relationship may be on an irreversible downward slide. The main source of U.S. anger is Pakistan's unwillingness to go after militants using its territory to launch attacks against American troops in Afghanistan.

On the Pakistani side, officials are fed up with Washington's constant demands for more without addressing Islamabad's concerns or sufficiently appreciating the country's sacrifice. Pakistan has lost thousands of troops fighting a domestic Taliban insurgency fueled partly by resentment of the alliance with the United States.

Panetta's comments about the bin Laden raid may have been unscripted, but others he made while in India and Afghanistan seemed calculated to step up pressure on Pakistan. He stressed Washington's strong relationship with India — which Islamabad considers its main, historic enemy — and defended unpopular American drone attacks in Pakistan.

He also said in unusually sharp terms that the United States was running out of patience with Islamabad's failure to go after the Pakistani Haqqani network.

Pakistan lashed out at Panetta on Saturday and denied the country was providing safe havens for militants.

Panetta "is oversimplifying some of the very complex issues we are dealing with in our efforts against extremism and terrorism," the Foreign Ministry said. "We strongly believe that such statements are misplaced and unhelpful in bringing about peace and stability in the region."

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