Outgoing US Ambassador Cameron Munter’s stint in Pakistan began in 2010 and was expected to last until 2013. But on May 7 this year, only 18 months into the job, he announced that he would be going back home this summer. So, as the envoy departs, what are the lessons to be learnt from his ambassadorship and its untimely end? There is a great deal of speculation about the reasons for Munter’s hastier than expected departure. The first is that the ambassador appeared to take a soft, diplomatic line over the Hafiz Saeed bounty issue and was even reported as telling the Pakistani media that the US government had not announced any head money on Saeed and the matter had been misreported. According to some media reports, the administration’s apparent dissatisfaction with the ambassador’s handling of the matter in Pakistan became an important factor in his resignation. Next, the US refusal to immediately apologise for the Nov 26, 2011 Salala attacks, combined with dismay at the use of drones as the weapon of default in the tribal areas, are cited as the two other main reasons for the unusual decision of the US ambassador to step down after less than two years. “I didn’t realise my main job was to kill people,” Munter was quoted by The New York Times as telling colleagues. In the final analysis, Munter was increasingly marginalised in an administration dominated by the partnership between Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta and CIA Director David Petraeus. And in the end, it seems that Munter lost the battle altogether.
But the issues surrounding Munter’s departure can act as lightning rods to illuminate the real state of Pak-US ties. Indeed, it would not be a stretch to say that things have turned truly pear-shaped between the two countries given the sheer inability of the Obama administration to understand that its focus on drone strikes has made it impossible to forge the new relationship with the Muslim world that Obama had promised in his June 2009 speech in Cairo. Munter understood that a focus on counter-terrorism alone, or on having an ‘assistance relationship’ as opposed to the pursuit of a long-term partnership, was not the right way to get past a relationship so fraught with anger and misunderstanding. And that Munter was unable to communicate this elemental fact of diplomacy to his boss in DC says less about his own failings and more about Washington’s failure to accept that Pakistan is arguably less stable and more hostile to the United States now than when Obama became president. During his 18 plus months in Islamabad, Munter navigated some treacherous diplomatic terrain, including the Abbottabad raid that killed Osama bin Laden, punitive drone attacks, and a stand-off over Nato supply routes. But at the end of it all, it seems that in this battle of ‘drones vs diplomacy,’ drones have prevailed over the diplomats and the Obama White House’s tactics will take precedence over strategy in times to come. Unfortunately for friends of Pakistan such as Cameron Munter, and for Pakistan itself, this means that the US could end up dissipating its long-term interests in Pakistan for short-term counter-terrorism gains.