| ||Pakistan's military hold the keys to a thaw with the US|
By Marvin Weinbaum
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Just when US-Pakistan relations appear to have reached a new low, yet another event drives them lower still, further complicating chances of stabilising bilateral ties.
Over the last 18 months, the deterioration of relations has been punctuated by a series of incidents, most dramatically the May 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden and the US air strike last November at Salala, in which 24 Pakistani solders died.
The latest obstacle is recent harsh criticism of Pakistan by Leon Panetta, the US defence secretary.
Hopes for an early reset of Pakistan-US relations, a restart with fewer illusions and lower expectations, are rapidly fading.
This estrangement has been building for more than a decade. At its core is American displeasure with Pakistan for harbouring Afghan insurgents, and for failing to repudiate domestic extremists. Resentment has grown over what is seen as Pakistan's ingratitude for US assistance and its displays of virulent anti-Americanism.
Pakistanis, meanwhile, hold the US-Nato war in Afghanistan responsible for spawning insurgency and violence in Pakistan. The US is considered unappreciative of Pakistan's sacrifices in aligning with the US on Afghanistan. More broadly, there lurks a suspicion about US strategic intentions.
And yet policymakers can agree that the national interests of the two countries coincide in at least two critical areas: curbing terrorism and building stability and prosperity in the region.
So why is there such great difficulty in achieving a new normal?
For at least part of the answer we have to look at the domestic context in both countries.
On the US side there is a growing debate, within government circles and among opinion leaders, over how best to approach Pakistan. One view is that with diplomacy and the right set of incentives the US can still hope to convince Pakistan to clamp down on militants linked to terrorism.
Beginning in 2009, Bush-era policies, framed by US interests in Afghanistan, focused on bolstering democratic institutions and improving the image of America through better-targeted development aid. A broader strategic partnership was intended to replace what had been a strictly transactional relationship.
Though not averse to applying pressure, the advocates of "soft power" acknowledge that Pakistan's leaders confront political and resource constraints. They are also anxious to avoid any instability that could put Pakistan's nuclear arsenal at risk.
Increasingly, however, this approach faces a challenge from those who call for the US to begin playing hardball. Saying attempts to engage Pakistan's military and elected leaders have been met only with contempt, they cite the failure to win over these elites and ordinary Pakistanis, despite $3 billion (Dh11bn) in annual aid.
Closure of the Nato supply line to Afghanistan, and the ejection of US military and intelligence personnel tracking terrorists, are taken as hostile. US forces, it is argued, should not hesitate to act unilaterally to pursue suspected terrorists, even if that means ignoring Pakistan's sensitivity about violations of its territory.
Many of these "hard power" advocates favour a containment strategy for Pakistan, including even a strategic tilt towards India.
In Pakistan, meanwhile, one looks in vain for a serious debate about how to engage the Americans. Rather, there is near-consensus that the US is determined to weaken Pakistan, to make it more pliable. In this narrative, the US and India aim to neutralise, if not seize, Pakistan's nuclear assets.
A few intrepid media commentators challenge this thinking, but the country's leaders refrain from taking issue with even the most bizarre conspiracy claims. Nobody is prepared to take the political and physical risks of speaking out.
This uniformity of views reflects a politicised Pakistani public that pays both too much and too little attention to what happens in the US. Anyone's half-baked statement is deemed to reflect official US policy. But few Pakistanis are attuned to US sensitivities.
Consumed as most Pakistanis are with sovereignty, few appreciate US feelings about how Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan cost American lives in Afghanistan. Nor is there understanding about why widely shared Pakistani attitudes - like the belief that the events of September 11, 2001 were concocted by the US - are so hurtful.
Demanding a US apology for the deaths at Salala, as a precondition for resumption of cooperation, displays a lack of awareness that the US, like Pakistan, faces a presidential election campaign.
So how, given their conflicting narratives, can the two countries work together to pursue mutual interests? In Pakistan's political climate, almost any US concession is likely to be interpreted as masking ulterior motives.
Conciliatory moves by Pakistan stand a better chance of being reciprocated. They would strengthen the hand of those in Washington who remain committed to soft power. Regrettably, however, such initiatives are unlikely from Pakistan's politicians.
The military alone has the stature necessary to sway popular attitudes and the power to check domestic forces pressing Pakistan to cut its ties to the US.
Even if some limited accord were to be reached with the generals, however, another event like Salala could instantly throw relations into a tailspin once again.
Marvin Weinbaum is a scholar-in-residence at the Middle East Institute in Washington DC, and a former analyst for Pakistan and Afghanistan in the US Department of State's Bureau of Intelligence and Research.