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U.S.-Pakistan: A perpetually dysfunctional relationship


U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's sudden visit to Pakistan this week to deliver a stern message to shape up or be shipped out of favour and lose American largesse is nothing more than a bump on a road well-travelled.

American money and weapons will continue to flow to Pakistan until 2014 - the deadline for U.S. troops to pull out of Afghanistan - with few questions asked.

Occasional speed breakers such as the current impasse may test the patience of the Obama Administration but nothing essential is likely to change barring a rare occurrence. Smart Pakistanis know the window may partially close after 2014.

The latest phase of US threats and Pakistani acquiescence was sparked by potential for violence near a border crossing used by the United States to bring back military equipment from Afghanistan.

Members of Imran Khan's Tehreek-e-Insaf, which is in power in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, have blocked the Torkham gate crossing since Nov. 24 to protest US drone strikes, forcing Washington to stop its trucks inside Afghanistan.

Hagel told Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that unless the problem was resolved, Pakistan could lose billions of dollars in aid because of tempers on Capitol Hill.

This is only partially correct because Congressional tempers have been managed by the administration despite evidence that Pakistan's army and ISI continue to support the biggest terrorist outfits such as LeT and the Haqqani network.

The U.S. Congress has looked the other way as the Obama Administration has issued waivers for Pakistan to continue receiving aid despite the discovery of Osama bin Laden and attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

Hagel's visit and strong words were just a small part of the perpetually dysfunctional US-Pakistan relationship built on deception, as documented in Husain Haqqani's latest book "Magnificent Delusions." The dysfunction goes back all the way to 1947 and every US president finds accommodation with it.

Obama too has found his after a belligerent initial phase during his first term in office when former secretary of state Hillary Clinton described Pakistan-reared terrorists as "snakes" and former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, called the Haqqani network a "veritable arm" of the ISI.

Realpolitik dictates Obama's new phase. Most of his advisers favour continuing and stabilizing the relationship, if not for the immediate reasons of a safe return of the troops then for Pakistan's growing nuclear arsenal.

Similar compulsions are at work in Pakistan, which cannot do without U.S. aid and blessings - be they for an IMF loan or deferrals of payments.

Sharif and his newly appointed army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, will find a way to "escort" the trucks, especially if the gravy pot is made heavier with more US military equipment for the Pakistan army.

This summer the Obama Administration quietly released $1.6 billion in military and civilian aid to Pakistan, saying its "frenemy" had shown progress in counter-terrorism efforts. The U.S. Congress didn't really ask for proof - at least not publicly - nor raise any dust.

Until 2014, Washington will do its utmost to keep the Pakistan military in good cheer.

The two sides have even worked out a joint five-year plan to bolster Pakistan's counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism capabilities in seven areas. They are night vision, counter IED, border security, communications and maritime operations, precision strikes, survivability, and maritime security.

The money to send Pakistan the equipment - not all of which can be justified as counter-terrorism needs - is already in the pipeline. Pentagon bureaucrats have stretched the definition of each category to give Pakistan the maximum benefit. But they did reject a request for "air defence" or new F-16s.

Imran Khan is a hurdle in an otherwise stabilizing relationship but he will be managed.

The views expressed in the above article are that of Seema Sirohi, a senior journalist specialising in foreign policy based in Washington D.C.

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First Published: Thu, December 12 2013. 13:23 IST