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Balancing Regional, U.S. Interests In Pakistan

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari addresses the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 25.  Zardari is struggling to balance national interests with a strong U.S.-Pakistani alliance.
Chris Hondros
Getty Images
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari addresses the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 25. Zardari is struggling to balance national interests with a strong U.S.-Pakistani alliance.

Pakistanis do not always believe their new president, Asif Ali Zardari. He has a record of saying one thing and doing another, yet few will question his remarks ahead of his first official trip to China this week.

As he set off for the four-day visit, Zardari declared that he wanted the trip to serve as a reminder to "the leadership of the world" of just how close Islamabad is to Beijing.

Zardari's message is, of course, intended for the U.S.

This is an old ploy: The man Zardari replaced, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, also used it. When Pakistan feels unloved by its American allies, it advertises its friendship with its powerful Chinese neighbors.

The signs suggest that Pakistan feels a little unloved by Washington right now.

Friction Between Islamabad And Washington

There are several reasons for this. For a long time, Pakistan has been watching uneasily as the U.S. forges a closer strategic relationship with its archrival, India.

The centerpiece of that new friendship is a freshly signed pact allowing American businesses to supply India with nuclear fuel and technology, ending a 34-year global ban on such transfers to New Delhi.

Pakistan demanded a similar deal — a request always doomed to fail, especially after it was revealed that Pakistan's top nuclear scientist, A.Q. Khan, had sold atomic secrets to some of America's biggest enemies, including Iran.

But another, more immediate, source of friction between Washington and Islamabad comes not from the East, but from high in the mountains along Pakistan's western frontier, a central arena for the so-called "war on terror."

For several years, unmanned CIA drones have, from time to time, fired missiles into Pakistan's border tribal belt in an effort to stop the area from being used as a sanctuary by the Taliban and other militants fighting U.S., NATO and government forces in Afghanistan.

These bombings tend to cause anger among Pakistanis, particularly when there are civilian casualties.

An Increase In Cross-Border Attacks

Shortly before Zardari was sworn in last month, the U.S. began to increase cross-border attacks. Many Pakistan commentators saw this as a warning to Pakistan's new government against negotiating peace in the tribal belt.

Almost all of these attacks have been missile strikes. But there was one exception — a raid by U.S. ground forces on a Pakistani border village early last month. Pakistan officials say at least 15 civilians were killed during that attack.

It caused a huge outcry. The Pakistani government summoned the U.S. ambassador and lodged a protest. The Pakistani army chief issued a statement vowing to defend his country's sovereignty "at all cost."

A few days later, there was a brief exchange of fire between Pakistani and American forces — two armies that are officially allies — along the Afghan border.

Some Pakistani commentators say such fighting could easily erupt again, with potentially dangerous consequences. But Talat Masood, a retired general turned political analyst, thinks the Pakistani military might opt for a more subtle response if the U.S. does not change its approach.

"If you are pushed into a certain thing, and you cannot react, then there are other ways of reacting" he tells NPR, in the fourth part of its series on the Afghan-Pakistan war.

"Like, for instance, there could be a silent lack of cooperation in every field of activity, which is much worse, because you would not know what is happening," Masood says.

Mixed Messages From Zardari

Pakistan's leaders were unanimous in their condemnation of the U.S. cross-border ground attacks. But American missile strikes produce a more nuanced response. Zardari's position on them is hard to pin down. True to form, he has sent mixed messages.

He has hinted that Pakistan has discreetly agreed to allow the missile strikes, telling a leading newspaper that Pakistan "has an understanding with the U.S." That was later contradicted by Pakistan's Foreign Ministry, which described such attacks as unhelpful and warned that they fuel "anti-Americanism."

The controversy has flared at a time when Pakistan is in deep trouble. Its army is battling with militants in large areas of the northwest; the country is grappling with a wave of Islamist suicide bombings as well as a worsening economic crisis.

Pakistanis speak with concern about what would happen if their new government fails. When civilian governments run into serious trouble in Pakistan, the army tends to step in. This is unlikely to happen in the near future: the Pakistani army's standing in the eyes of the public is too tarnished by nearly nine years of running the country under Musharraf.

Newspaper editor Najam Sethi, one of Pakistan's most influential journalists, fears that Pakistan's generals might eventually take over — possibly in a different guise.

"My great fear is this: That if this civil experiment with democracy fails — because Pakistan tends to collapse in some way or the other — the implications are not that there will be a fundamentalist takeover, but that there may be an anti-American nationalist takeover, which would amount to the same thing, because it would lead Pakistan into a state of isolation — a Myanmar type of syndrome. But in a nuclear armed country, you just cannot afford to have that sort of situation."

Sethi believes that is why the U.S. and its allies have no choice but to support Pakistan's democracy.

"You have to help this country do nation-building," he said, "Now, it's not only Afghanistan you have to build — you have to rebuild Pakistan. Because if these two states become dysfunctional failed states, the only beneficiaries will be mad people, whether they are Islamists or nationalists. This whole region will burn."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.