Experts point out that any newfound cooperation from Pakistan is not uniform across the government and its institutions, citing tensions between the military and President Asif Ali Zardari, the weak civilian president. — Photo by Reuters
WASHINGTON: A weekend tiff involving lawmakers from Pakistan’s tribal areas and airport security personnel in the United States underscores how tough it is to reverse years of US-Pakistani mistrust.
The six lawmakers were en route from Washington to New Orleans on Saturday when two were tagged for further screening at the capital’s airport — scrutiny they found insulting. They scrapped their two-week US trip, which was sponsored by the State Department, and went home midway through.
The airport incident was splashed across Pakistani media on their return, with the parliamentarians claiming they were told they would not be subject to full-body electronic scans.
Washington says those assurances were not given.
“This situation could have been avoided,” said an official at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said he regretted how the procedures were perceived by the lawmakers. A US airport security official said the measures were “an essential part” of the multilayered approach to keep the public safe.
Either way, the outcome was embarrassing for the Obama administration and feeds into a pattern of Pakistani hostility and suspicions over US intentions in the region.
“We are genuinely trying to improve relations but it doesn’t mean there will not be misunderstandings along the way,” said Larry Schwartz, a senior spokesman for the US Embassy in Islamabad, who accompanied the parliamentarians.
While in Washington, the group met State Department officials, including the special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, as well as members of Congress.
The program is one of many by the United States to boost people-to-people ties but the discordant ending to the visit underlines how hard it is to reach that goal.
“It is impossible to characterise the US-Pakistan relationship both historically and today in anything but the most complex and contradictory terms,” said Alexander Thier from the US Institute of Peace.
“Behaviour on both sides is duplicitous. The Pakistanis do not feel they are equal or respected partners by the United States. They feel mistreated.”
The trust deficit, said former US ambassador to Pakistan Wendy Chamberlin, is one of the chief obstacles to improvements in the relationship.
“The majority of Pakistanis distrust the United States because they believe we favour military dictators over civilian leaders and we are quick to abandon economic aid once we have achieved our security goals,” she said.
There have been signs recently of better understanding, with Washington praising Pakistan after the arrest in Karachi of a top Afghan Taliban commander, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.
But the high-level arrest raised questions over whether the detention had more to do with Pakistan securing its own interests in the region than helping Washington as it fights militants in neighbouring Afghanistan.
Why Pakistan chose to arrest Baradar at this time and the circumstances of the detention are also unclear, with a variety of explanations from apparent promises by Washington to put more pressure on India to a role for Islamabad in reconciliation talks with the Taliban.
Experts point out that any newfound cooperation from Pakistan is not uniform across the government and its institutions, citing tensions between the military and President Asif Ali Zardari, the weak civilian president.
Moreover, any shift in government and military ties has not yet translated into a boost in public sentiment, with deep suspicion over US-funded projects after Congress passed $1.5 billion a year in new civilian aid over the next five years.
“I don’t think the Obama administration has found the key yet towards more favourably influencing public opinion,” said James Dobbins, an expert on the region with Rand Corporation.
What Pakistan’s government says in public is often not reflected in private conversations with US officials.
For example, Pakistan’s government does not broadcast support for US pilotless drone attacks against militants because of public anger over those strikes but US officials say it has endorsed them privately.