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US cautious about Pakistan's democratic transition

Anwar Iqbal Washington
May 14, 2018

Pakistan's elected government will soon transfer power to an interim government, which will supervise general elections in the country. The US wants a "stronger than ever" civilan setup in Pakistan. Anwar Iqbal reports.

US and Pakistan flags
Image: Getty Images/AFP/M. Ralston

There is little interest in upcoming Pakistani elections in the United States, where the Trump administration, the think tanks and the media seem focused on the US-led peace efforts on the Korean Peninsula and on Washington's decision to undo the Iran nuclear deal.

Even Afghanistan, where the US still has thousands of troops, is rarely mentioned in official briefings, think-tank discussions or media reports. The ongoing diplomatic dispute with Pakistan — which led both countries to place unprecedented restrictions on each other's diplomats — also did not get much attention in the US media.

But Pakistani diplomats in Washington say that this apparent aloofness is misleading, as there exists a very strong — albeit subterranean — US concern and interest in Pakistan and its affairs.

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A crisis of trust

Earlier this month, the Pakistani embassy in Washington received a detailed notification from the US State Department, telling the mission that its diplomats, staff and their families have to confine themselves to a 25-mile radius. Anyone wanting to cross that limit has to inform the department at least five days before the intended travel. And that not hearing from the State Department within the stipulated period should not be interpreted as permission.

Pakistan responded by placing even stronger restrictions on American diplomats, who not only have to live within the city limits but also cannot use vehicles with tinted windows or private number plates. The embassy can no longer maintain "safe houses" in Pakistan and US diplomats cannot have more than one passport, as they did before.

On Saturday, Pakistan barred Col. Joseph Emanuel Hall, a US military attaché, from leaving the country and briefly detained him for questioning.

Supporter of Former Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif
Former Pakistani PM Sharif is on a collision path with his country's powerful militaryImage: Getty Images/AFP/A. Hassan

A US military aircraft, flown in from the Bagram airbase in Afghanistan, had to leave without Hall. Col. Hall is involved in a fatal traffic accident in Islamabad and Pakistan has asked Washington to waive his diplomatic immunity, so that he could be tried in the country. Washington has shown no inclination to do so.

Pakistan's US ambassador, Aizaz Ahmed Chaudhary, however, believes that the ongoing diplomatic dispute between the two countries will soon be resolved as their relationship is "too important to be ignored."

But others warn that Pakistan's decision to stop a US diplomat from flying out of the country could create a new crisis of trust between the two countries.

"This could create a more serious crisis for US-Pakistan relations than the new tit-for-tat diplomatic restrictions," tweeted Michael Kugelman, a South Asia specialist at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.

In an interview with The New York Times, Kugelman said that barring Hall from leaving the country "could develop into a full-blown crisis for relations if it's not resolved soon."

He noted that since the US military attaché had diplomatic immunity, "Pakistan's refusal to let him leave the country will be seen by Washington as a wholly unjustifiable and illegal act."

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Ambassador Chaudhary acknowledged the seriousness of the current situation but said that the two governments were "already holding discussions to resolve this and other issues. Both sides know that these issues need to be resolved and they are trying to do so."

"I hope that they will be resolved soon," he added.

The Trump administration, however, is being extremely cautious. Even President Donald Trump, known for announcing major foreign policy decisions through tweets, has avoided commenting on the diplomatic dispute with Pakistan.

The State Department is only confirming that it has received a copy of the Pakistani notification about placing new restrictions on US diplomats in Pakistan.

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US wants a 'strong civilian government in Pakistan'

Diplomatic observers in the US capital say that Washington does not want to make any major announcement in this transitory period in Pakistan, when one government leaves in two weeks and the one replacing it stays only for an interim period.

"The Americans know that in this election season, everything becomes a political issue," a senior Pakistani official visiting Washington, who did not want to be named, told DW. "They also know that nobody in Islamabad is in a position to take a major decision."

Asked if the US has favorites in the upcoming Pakistan elections, the official said, "Even if they did, they are not going to make it public. The Americans know not to do so at this stage."

His argument was that since the US knew that Pakistan's powerful military can influence, and has influenced, elections, they would wait for things to crystalize before deciding who to support.

Congressman Thomas R. Suozzi, a New York Democrat, told DW that Washington would like to have a strong civilian government in Pakistan, "stronger than there have been in the past."

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Changing geopolitics

Earlier this week, an organization of the Pakistani-American community arranged a one-day event to discuss US-Pakistan relations where speakers stressed that US concerns about growing insurgency in Afghanistan was the main cause for this shrinking space for Pakistan in the United States and unless the situation in Afghanistan improves, relations will remain tense.

"Terrorism on the Afghan-Pakistan border has been a huge issue here, as it does not just affect our country but also Pakistan," Congressman Donald Norcross, a New Jersey Democrat, told DW.

Congressman Suozzi put it more bluntly. "Everyone here is focused now on the Afghan-Pakistan border, not on issues like Kashmir."

Marvin Wienbaum, a renowned US scholar of South Asian affairs, said the US decision to revoke the Iran nuclear deal will also put pressure on Pakistan. "If Iran reignites its nuclear program and Saudi Arabia responds, there could be potential military action in the region," which may rope in Pakistan too.

He said peace in Korea gives some hope to those wanting peace in the Pakistan-Afghan region "but one has reason to be skeptical, for Pakistan to be able to deal with the challenges, relations with US in particular."

Ambassador Chaudhary insisted that Pakistan could deal with this pressure.

"We have been able to maintain a balance between Iran and Saudi Arabia. We welcomed the nuclear deal as a success of diplomacy," he told DW. "Pakistan also has vested interests. We are an energy-starved country and the deal opened chances for Pakistan to engage economically with Iran."

And this could be another cause of friction with the US.

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