US & Canada

US and Pakistan: Will the relationship endure?

Raheel Sharif Image copyright KARIM ULLAH
Image caption Raheel Shari has overseen a major military operation against Islamists

Days after a Pentagon report accused Pakistan of harbouring militants who wage war against Afghanistan and India, its army chief is in the US meeting top military officials and Congressmen.

Raheel Sharif's visit, the first by any Pakistani army chief in four years, comes at a time when the US is in the final stages of its withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Officials say the US may not need Pakistan's ports and roads as before to sustain its Afghanistan operations, but the engagement between the two nations will continue.

The relationship took a heavy blow following the US raid in Abbottabad to kill Osama Bin Laden, but efforts have been made over the past year to rebuild the military ties.

Mr Sharif, after taking over the post last year, has overseen a major military operation against Islamists in the tribal areas of Pakistan, a long-pending US demand.

Experts say Islamabad is using this as a way to extract a commitment from the US regarding enhanced engagement and continuation of military aid to Pakistan post-2014.

Signs of thawing relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan have helped create some positive vibes in the US towards its uncertain ally.

But there still remains a huge trust deficit.

Many officials and members of Congress have openly expressed frustration at Pakistan's efforts to combat militant groups like the Haqqani Network, who pose a direct threat to US interests.

Earlier this year the US had to free five top Taliban fighters from the Guantanamo Bay prison to secure the release of one of its soldiers, Pvt Sgt Bowe Bergdahl, who was allegedly in the captivity of the Haqqani Network.

The deal left many Pentagon officials cringing. They believed Sgt Bergdahl could have been snatched from the Haqqanis if the Pakistani Army had extended its cooperation.

"They placed a higher value on their relationship with the Haqqanis than they did on their relationship with the United States, " said former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense David Sedney.

Incidents like these have led many in Congress to question the effectiveness of this strategic partnership.

With the ongoing military operation against militants in North Waziristan, the army chief has tried to convey that Pakistan no longer discriminates between terrorists and it has no favourites.

Image copyright U.S. Army
Image caption US officials believe they could have rescued US soldier Bowe Bergdahl outright had they more cooperation from Pakistan.

But Congress, which approves the budget for any sort of military or non-military funding, will need a lot more convincing.

A statement this week from Sartaj Aziz, Pakistan's national security advisor to the BBC saying : "Why should America's enemies unnecessarily become our enemies?" may have further added to this mistrust.

The US State Department has said it will reiterate its message to Mr Sharif that it is: "vital that every effort is made to deny safe haven to any and all violent extremists".

Shamila Chaudhary, former Pakistan director at the US National Security Council, says the US is now in a much better position to mount pressure on Pakistan.

"Moving forward we will see the United States pushing Pakistan more on what it's going to do not just with Haqqani Network militants but some of the sectarian groups that are in Pakistan that are anti-India, and that are also focused on Pakistan," Ms Chaudhary said.

One of the biggest concerns for the Pakistani army is to ensure the continuation of the Coalition Support Fund (CSF), a kind of reimbursement from the US for the costs it incurs in military operations.

As per Congressional Research Service reports, Pakistan has received close to $28.4bn (£12bn) in military and non-military aid from the US post 9/11. Of that, $11bn came from the CSF.

Experts say convincing Congress to continue the CSF will be a tough ask for Mr Sharif. Many of the senators who control the purse strings have put conditions on the release of funds to Pakistan.

Pakistan also gets close to $300m worth of military aid per year from the US to buy conventional weapons.

"This was offered more as a 'feel good' for the Pakistani Army for its cooperation, and they have used it to acquire conventional weapons that can be used against arch-rival India," said a US official who did not want to be named. "If this funding gets discontinued, it will reflect a real trouble in the relationship."

The overall interest towards Pakistan has ebbed in Congress. Experts say it will need some real serious and honest effort to inject vitality in the relationship.

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