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U.S.-Pakistan Relationship: “One of the Most Severe Roller Coaster Rides in History”

President Barack Obama with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari and Vice President Joe Biden

President Barack Obama with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari and Vice President Joe Biden during a statement in the Grand Foyer of the White House following a trilateral meeting. May 6, 2009

The relationship between the United States and Pakistan has received substantial attention at the NATO summit early this week in Chicago. Just before the summit commenced, a deal to reopen supply lines through Pakistan to Afghanistan collapsed. President Barack Obama refused to meet with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari without a deal on the supply routes, a measure of just how much the relationship between the two countries has deteriorated.

In April, Bruce Riedel, senior advisor on South Asia and the Middle East to the last four presidents of the United States in the staff of the National Security Council at the White House, spoke about the relationship between the United States and Pakistan at the Miller Center. He said the relationship between the two countries “can only be described as one of the most severe roller-coaster rides in history.” Indeed, according to Riedel, “We need Pakistan on the one hand and on the other we can’t trust them. We need them because they’re an important country, and yet years of experience have led us to the conclusion that at least parts of the Pakistani national security establishment are not really on our side in the war against Jihad.”

Below are highlights of Riedel’s analysis of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. Watch the entire forum here.

Riedel said that there is “no country in the world as complex as Pakistan” and gave a description of the country’s complexity:

It is important because of its location and its population. It has the fastest growing nuclear weapons arsenal in the world and no one outside of Pakistan knows how many nuclear weapons it has. It is the number one proliferator of nuclear technology of our time. It is also a democracy, has a vibrant media and an active court.

Pakistan’s leader, President Zardari is the first elected head-of-state to serve a full term, which is a considerable accomplishment. He is, however, also known for the percentages of the contracts he received during his wife’s tenure as prime minister. Pakistan is also the terror capital of the world, and yet it is also a victim of terrorism. It has had the equivalent of ten 9/11s in terms of casualties in the ten years since 9/11.

According to Riedel, part of the reason the relationship between the United States and Pakistan is so distressed is the war in Afghanistan.

In essence, the United States is fighting a proxy war against Pakistan in Afghanistan. In Pakistan’s perspective, America behaves like an arrogant power that treats its country as a killing field, particularly in its use of drones, which has caused innocent civilian casualties.

We’ve been at a stand-off for the last couple months. The Obama administration and Zadari’s government have been looking for ways to re-set the relationship and to have more realistic expectations of each other. But this is a challenge. At the end of the day, Pakistan is a very complicated, contradictory country that is terribly important to the United States.

However, in examining Pakistani history, Riedel was optimistic about prospects for the future.

The Pakistani people have rejected military leaders four times and have fought to make it a progressive and modern country. And President Zardari, for all his faults, his vision for Pakistan is much more conducive to America’s views. He wants to get Pakistan out of the business of being on both sides of the war on terror. He wants to get Pakistan away from being in constant competition with India. He wants to make money and capitalism might be one of the best means for reform.

Riedel offered several suggestions for altering U.S. policy.

A battle is underway for the soul of the country. And it is in America’s national security interest to help those who are fighting for the soul of Pakistan. We can begin with a hippocratic oath to do no harm.

The United States should use the drone sparingly. We should also do what we can to strengthen the civilian democratically elected forces in Pakistan, but recognize there will be areas of profound disagreement for the foreseeable future.

Riedel said the United States needs to provide less military assistance and more free trade and economic assistance. Specifically, the U.S. should level the playing field to allow Pakistani products into the market to help build the entrepreneurial sector.

The U.S. can help build a “friends of Pakistan” group, including Europeans, China, United Arab Emirates and others, to provide financial assistance. India, the country that has the most influence in Pakistan, should also be more thoughtful with regards to its own policies, especially on Kashmir.

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