Over the last week, the US-Pakistan diplomatic imbroglio has thickened. A Pakistani doctor, Shakil Afridi, was apprehended last year for his collusion with the CIA. In Pakistan, it is illegal to be on the payroll of any foreign intelligence agency. Afridi had orchestrated a false vaccination scheme, which was actually designed to gather DNA samples on the residents of Abbottabad, the Pakistani city where the late Osama bin Laden had sequestered himself. In an interesting twist, however, court documents show that Afridi was ostensibly arrested for supporting a local Islamist warlord, a charge which his brother Jamil calls “fabricated and baseless.” Afridi was sentenced to 33 years in prison, a sentence harsh even by the draconian legal standards of Pakistan’s tribal courts. In response, the US slashed $33 million in economic aid to the country – one for each year of the doctor’s coming incarceration.
Unfortunately, Afridi’s imprisonment is only the latest strain on a relationship many already consider to be in terminal decline. The points of contention between Islamabad and Washington are only growing in number. The US’s grievances include squandering of millions of dollars of foreign aid money by Pakistan’s venal politicians and the closure of a NATO transport route that ran out of southern Afghanistan. For the last year, Pakistan has demanded that NATO pay a hefty $5000 per truck to reopen the route, representing a 20-fold increase from the previous price. Pakistan has reasons to be upset as well, the greatest of which is undoubtedly the repeated forays of drones into the country, which have killed hundreds of civilians. A particularly bloody drone strike last year led to the closure of the NATO equipment pipeline. Pakistan considers the drone attacks gross violations of its sovereignty.
The diplomatic rift that these issues have caused widens by the day. Last month, at the NATO summit in Chicago, Obama cold-shouldered Pakistani President Asi Ali Zardari and only last week the director of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, Zahir ul-Islam, cancelled his planned visit to CIA headquarters. And, of course, the imprisonment of Dr. Afridi, an action that even the most obtuse Pakistani politician knew would elicit a hostile response, demonstrates how negative Pakistani popular sentiment towards the US must be. Indeed, a PEW poll conducted last summer found that a 70 percent majority of Pakistanis considered the US more of an “enemy” than a “partner.”
Perhaps it would behoove the US and NATO to listen to the Pakistani people. As the near full-scale Afghan withdrawal unfolds, a reliable partner in the region will be necessary. That Osama bin Laden was able to live in Abbottabad, a city very near Pakistani army barracks, while the ISI was ostensibly combing the country for his whereabouts, is cause for great concern. When a man integral to his capture is then imprisoned, it takes extreme optimism to call the US-Pakistan relationship savable or even worth saving. With popular opinion set so decidedly against the West, it would be equally prudent for Pakistani politicians to draw back their relations with the US. Some may argue that the US is too invested in Pakistan to stop relations; indeed, billions in economic and military aid have been dispensed to bolster the country. This would not be the first time the US has had to reevaluate an alliance in the Middle East – witness Egypt, Iran, and Iraq – and it will not be the last. US aid does not have to come to a screeching halt, either – ending such an alliance does not mean that antagonism must replace it.
NATO took a step away from Pakistan was taken when it reached an independent deal with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan to open a transport route to ship military equipment out of Afghanistan. Circumventing Pakistan may very well become the norm in the region as the US, hopefully, begins a bona fide search for a new regional partner.