Is the dinner over?

June 3, 2018

As the US-Pakistan relations remain icy, a backward glance at the short term irritants and long term policy goals of both Obama and Trump administrations

Is the dinner over?

Exactly a year after winning his first term, on December 1, 2009, President Barack Obama unveiled his much awaited South Asia strategy. From the US Military Academy at West Point, New York, Obama spoke about ‘The way forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan’. Obama recognised that the success in Afghanistan was "inextricably linked to partnership with Pakistan".

He declared, "America will remain a strong supporter of Pakistan’s security and prosperity long after the guns have fallen silent, so that the great potential of its people can be unleashed."

The announcement was a break from the previous muddled and sluggish relationship.

His three core elements of the strategy were: a military effort to create the conditions for a transition; a civilian surge that reinforces positive action; and an effective partnership with Pakistan.

During the period, Pakistan was offered five billion dollars assistance in various categories. A number of working groups were established to broaden the cooperation.

In the meantime, the US refrained from propagating the multiple projects it was sponsoring in Pakistan as it deliberately let the local leadership take credit for development. In hindsight, the Americans feared that an attention towards such projects could result in attacks from unwanted quarters, says Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington.

Talking to TNS, he recalled that Obama administration’s commitment to the relationship was so unwithering that when Hamid Karzai blamed Pakistan for all ills during a presidential dinner in Kabul, the US Vice President Joe Biden reminded his host that Pakistan was more important to the US than Afghanistan. "After that, Biden pushed away his napkin saying, this dinner is over".

The details of almost all bilateral agreements were not shared with the press, giving a leeway to Pakistani leadership to manipulate at will. The general public came to know about the Ground Lines of Communication (GLOCs) when Pakistan shut them down to put pressure on the American administration, but many are still not familiar with the little known Air Lines of Communications (ALOCs) that remain more strategic and operational.

Within two years, the foundation of mutual interests, respect and trust first crumbled and then came crashing down. The Raymond Davis incident, the Abbottabad raid, embassy bombing in Kabul and the Salala shootout -- all in 2011 -- proved that the commitment to forge an equal partnership had turned out to be a fool’s paradise.

Then the Justice department pinched Pakistan where it was least expected. The known Kashmiri leader and head of the Kashmiri American Council, Ghulam Nabi Fai, was arrested in July 2011 and sentenced in December 2011 for working as a Pakistani agent. "For the last 20 years, Mr Fai secretly took millions of dollars from Pakistani intelligence and lied about it to the US government," US Attorney Neil MacBride then said in a statement.

Basically, Fai had not registered himself as a Foreign Agent, and had not paid taxes he owed, according to his own confession to the Justice department. He was sentenced and spent almost two years in prison. Pakistan denied having any connection with Fai; however, after that a significant influencer was gone.

Still, cooperation between certain bilateral working groups and civilian and military financial assistance continued with hiccups for another few years. President Obama’s second term focused on keeping the relationship afloat in any way possible.

On August 21, 2017, almost six months after taking office, President Trump introduced his South Asia strategy at Fort Myer, in Arlington, Virginia. He abandoned the so called ‘carrot and stick’ policy that Washington had practised for years. The speech that Trump delivered also laid out a "path forward in Afghanistan and South Asia", in which he warned that the approach to deal with Pakistan has changed.

He also said, "We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting. But that will have to change, and that will change immediately".


That, then, did change. After his surprise New Year tweet criticising Pakistan, Trump suspended all security assistance to the country. Since then, the chill gradually turned into a cold war of sorts between the two countries.

On May 11, the Trump administration, in an unprecedented move, imposed travel restrictions on Pakistani diplomats stationed at its embassy in Washington. The State Department last week explained, "It is the responsibility of all host governments to create the conditions necessary to permit the personnel of foreign embassies to carry out their duties. At this time, the harassment faced by American and local US Embassy and Consulate personnel in Pakistan restricts their ability to carry out their mission. We have also documented numerous cases in which ordinary Pakistani citizens participating in our educational, cultural, and development programs have faced harassment by Pakistani government officials," a department spokesperson said adding, "The [travel] controls are intended to encourage Pakistan to stop harassment of US Mission personnel and interference with our public activities, which have risen dramatically in recent months."

Islamabad in reaction to new rules withdrew certain privileges available to American diplomats there.

With no apparent link to the diplomatic row, the US Justice department prosecuted another Pakistani man, Dr Nisar Chaudhry, who pleaded guilty to working as a foreign agent.

After his failed efforts to keep the diplomatic relations from sinking further, the now former Pakistani ambassador, Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry, had reached out to the Pakistani diaspora in the US. He wanted them to engage in political activities so they could influence lawmakers in favour of Pakistan.

However, Dr Nisar’s case turned the ambassador’s plan upside down. Needless to say, the diaspora appears more cautious than before. "I have advised the diaspora to always follow the law of the land. All activities should be within the given rules. Pakistan embassy would never ask anyone to break rules, and we respect American rules as much as we want others to respect ours," says Aizaz Chaudhry talking to TNS.

Not just this, Washington also blocked a request by Pakistan at the UNSC to designate Omar Khorasani as a terrorist, even though it had targeted Khorasani in a drone strike in Afghanistan, and had formally designated his organizations, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar as a terrorist outfit two years ago.

Read also: A partnership coming apart

In a way, the relationship between the two countries can easily be regarded as not just hostile but also treading on a course of collision.

Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center, observes that the Trump administration’s policy "amounts to pressuring Pakistan with pinpricks. It’s a policy unlikely to achieve its main aim, which is getting Pakistan to target the terrorists on its soil that are killing Americans in Afghanistan. But it’s guaranteed to keep US-Pakistan relations icy for the foreseeable future."

Is the dinner over?