The Obama administration is at an awkward moment with Pakistan, eager to better secure the Afghan border and forestall an Iranian-Pakistan gas pipeline deal, but hamstrung by the temporary absence of an established central government in Islamabad.
Secretary of State John Kerry wanted to go to Islamabad following surprise stops in Baghdad and Kabul this past weekend, but U.S. officials decided against it as Pakistan’s caretaker leaders prepare for May’s first-ever civilian-to-civilian transition of power. Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf’s government stepped down in mid-March at the end of its five-year term.
“Given the kind of historic nature of where Pakistan is right now, we wanted to be holier than the pope on this one on staying away while the electoral process unfolds,” says a senior State Department official traveling with Kerry.
“Given the state of conspiracy theorists, given the state of anything else, we did not want to lead anyone to conclude anything about where our interests may lie,” the U.S. official says. “As soon as there’s a government in place, I think you can expect to see Secretary Kerry there.”
A lot to talk about
There’s a lot for Kerry to talk about: the Haqqani militant network that has attacked U.S. troops in Afghanistan, cross-border drone strikes from Afghanistan on Pakistani militants, recriminations over the Pakistani physician who helped lead Seal Team Six to Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan and the “peace pipeline” deal with Iran.
“Pakistan is at a very critical situation in terms of world politics,” says Akbar Ahmed, an author and professor at American University. “On the one side, it has China. In the south it has India, the north, Afghanistan and then Iran. How can the United States just leave this huge vacuum in a critical part of the world when, potentially, it has Pakistan as an ally? Good or bad it does have it on its side.”
While American diplomats say there is no trouble here as acting U.S. Special Representative David Pearce continues to meet with place-holding Pakistani technocrats, the crisis between executive and judicial authorities in Islamabad delays Secretary Kerry’s engagement with the country’s political class.
Using his personal ties
So he’s working through his considerable personal ties with Pakistan’s army, dining in Jordan during this trip with the Pakistani military chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, with whom he discussed security issues, including counter-terrorism and dealing with terrorist safe havens along the Pakistani-Afghan border.
“Without the participation of Pakistan, any peace process will not see a fruitful end,” says Afghan President Hamid Karzai. “When we say ‘peace process,’ this is not to mean talking to the Taliban alone, unofficially, or as Afghan to Afghan, but a process whereby there is a recognized, official, publicly-announced process between the Taliban and the Afghan Peace Council on the one hand, and between the Afghan Government and the Pakistani Government on the other hand.”
Keen to encourage the opening of a Taliban office in Doha to pump life into reconciling the various Afghan factions, Washington and Kabul know they can’t get there without Pakistan’s help.
“It is inevitable that both the Pakistani government, in their own way, and the Afghan government, in their own way, would be acknowledging this reality and conduct dialogue,” Ahmed says. “As I am sure the United States also through its diplomatic channels would be having some kind of contact with the Taliban on the ground because that is a reality that cannot be ignored.”
And Karzai says the Taliban is just as important to Pakistan as it is to Afghanistan.
“We are equally worried about Pakistan, about the casualties, about the people that get targeted and killed and injured in Pakistan,” Karzai says. “So this is a call for the Taliban to grasp this opportunity and to use it to their best, to stop killing and violence in Afghanistan. And again, we are seeking the best brotherhood with Pakistan, and the best relationship with Pakistan, and their cooperation would certainly benefit all of us.”
Cooperation with Iran
Pakistan’s growing cooperation with Iran is especially troubling for the Obama administration, especially the progress on their long-delayed gas pipeline. Construction on the pipeline in Iran is nearing completion and construction in Pakistan is well underway.
It’s difficult for the U.S. diplomacy to compete on the pipeline issue. No matter how many hydro-electric dams the United States pays to refurbish, Washington alone cannot meet Pakistan’s crushing demands for more power.
“It’s in the interests of the Pakistani government to have access to energy, and Iran is promising that through this gas pipeline,” Ahmed says. “At the same time the United States is doing everything to block this.”
Chiefly through the threat of sanctions linked to Iranian’s nuclear program.
“We have serious concerns if this project actually goes forward that the Iran Sanctions Act would be triggered,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland says of the pipeline deal. “We’ve been straight-up with the Pakistanis about these concerns.”
As for other countries that have avoided the Iran Sanctions Act by reducing their dependence on Iranian oil, Nuland says the pipeline “would take Pakistan in the wrong direction right at a time that we’re trying to work with Pakistan on better, more reliable ways to meet its energy needs.”
At a pipeline ceremony earlier this month, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dismissed the U.S. threats.
“There are people who are against the progress of Iran, Pakistan and other countries,” Ahmadinejad said. “They have found an excuse – called the nuclear issue – to exert pressure on Iran and to prevent its progress. I want to tell them the gas pipeline has nothing to do with nuclear energy. You can’t make an atomic bomb with natural gas.”
Ahmed says Iran hopes the pipeline triggers U.S. sanctions against Pakistan to push Islamabad even closer to Tehran.
“I don’t think the United States should be pushing Pakistan to the point that it’s at the brink,” Ahmed says. “It’s already at the brink in terms of the law-and-order breakdown in Pakistan, in terms of the economic crisis, in terms of really the sense of crisis that now envelopes Pakistan and the awareness in Pakistan that America is the root cause of most of its problems.”
“If the United States pushes Pakistan that hard, the danger is that an already fragile relationship will collapse.”