Pragmatism rules new Obama team's Pakistan policy

Reuters News
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Posted: Oct 06, 2011 5:28 PM
Pragmatism rules new Obama team's Pakistan policy

By Missy Ryan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - After a very public falling out between Pakistan and the Pentagon, the U.S. military's new leaders are unlikely to replicate the close bond that the outgoing U.S. military boss had with his Pakistani peer.

Nor will they want to.

The "Pakistani problem," at least as far as critical security ties go, is now in the hands of General Martin Dempsey, who became U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman this month, and Leon Panetta, who became defense secretary in July.

As mutual hostility deepens and many U.S. officials resign themselves to a narrow, arms-length alliance with Pakistan, the two men's ability to forge ties with security officials in Islamabad is unlikely to count as much as it once might have.

"The United States is turning a corner with Pakistan and entering uncharted territory, and Dempsey and Panetta will represent the new realism with Pakistan," said retired U.S. General David Barno, who commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005.

Absent in the new era will likely be anything approaching the famous friendship that Admiral Mike Mullen, Dempsey's predecessor, had with General Ashfaq Kayani, Pakistan's army boss and arguably the country's most powerful man.

That shift echoes a hollowing of civilian ties since the sudden death last year of Richard Holbrooke, President Barack Obama's special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Holbrooke's death left Obama without a rock-star diplomat to lobby for peace talks and try to twist Pakistan's arm on pursuing militants.

"Relations with Pakistan are (now) less about the personalities involved than they are the factual nature of the relationship," said Jeff Dressler, a regional expert at the Institute for Study of War in Washington.

"We have apparently come to the realization that the U.S. and Pakistan do not have the same objectives in Afghanistan and that, fundamentally, we are at odds on many issues."

Obama himself said much the same on Thursday, telling a news conference that Pakistan, focused on India and Afghanistan's future after a U.S. troop withdrawal, is "ambivalent" about U.S. goals in South Asia.

The bond Mullen shared with Kayani was an important channel in an often troubled relationship -- until just days before Mullen stepped down, when he bluntly accused Pakistani intelligence of supporting a September 13 militant attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

PUTTING THE PAST BEHIND THEM?

Panetta, a plain-talking veteran politician, now faces the challenge of moving beyond past ties fraught with suspicion and mutual distrust.

As CIA director from 2009 to 2011, Panetta was a foil to the more conciliatory Mullen. His role spearheading U.S. intelligence on alleged Pakistani links to militants made for prickly talks with ISI boss Ahmed Shuja Pasha.

ISI officials say Pasha felt slighted by Mullen's accusations, and similar comments from Panetta, whom Pasha used to consider a 'good friend.' They voice disappointment with both Panetta and his CIA replacement, former Afghanistan commander David Petraeus.

Panetta is associated in Islamabad with the covert drone strikes on militants' border hide-outs, which have increased sharply since Obama took office in early 2009.

"In Pakistan, they don't like Panetta, period," said Joshua Foust, a fellow at the American Security Project.

"It could be because he knows a lot of dirt, but also just by running the drones program -- which everyone thinks is the exclusive domain of the Director of Central Intelligence, whatever the reality is -- he garnered a lot of ill-will."

"There have been moments of tensions, but by the same token the Pakistanis have seen Panetta as an honest broker," a senior U.S. official said on condition of anonymity. "That's our perception, someone with whom they may disagree but someone with whom they can work."

It was that 'honest broker' reputation, the official said, that helped the two nations weather the storm that followed the secret U.S. raid that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden deep inside Pakistan in May.

ORDER OF MAGNITUDE

If Panetta may struggle in putting the past behind him, his uniformed counterpart Dempsey could grapple with building deep ties, given his lower profile and limited on-the-ground regional experience.

"My estimate is that you're going to see Dempsey much less engaged by an order of magnitude than Mullen," said Barno, who attended the U.S. Army Command and Staff College in Kansas at the same time as Dempsey and Kayani in the 1980s.

As acting and deputy head of Central Command in 2007-2008, Dempsey made at least half a dozen trips to Pakistan and met with Kayani a number of times. But he has not served in Afghanistan and his combat views may have been shaped more by his extensive on-the-ground experience in Iraq.

"Yes, (the relationship) is strained, and yes, we are working on overcoming a deficit of trust," Dempsey said through a spokesman.

"However, I expect Pakistan to act against terrorists like Haqqani that kill Americans and threaten our interests," he said, referring to the insurgent group that Washington blames for attacks on U.S. targets in Afghanistan.

Dempsey and Panetta may share a reluctance to sidle up too closely to Pakistan, fearing domestic political fallout from new revelations about Islamabad's ties to militants. Both will have to focus on close-to-home issues such as shielding the military from massive budget cuts.

The man who appears to be already working to develop closer ties with Pakistan's military is General James Mattis, who heads U.S. Central Command, the job that Petraeus departed to become Obama's pinch hitter in Afghanistan in 2010.

Since becoming the regional boss a little over a year ago, Mattis has visited Pakistan six times, and he will likely take a more hands-on approach with Pakistan as he lets the field commander in Afghanistan manage the day-to-day war there.

Yet if the relationship takes another sharp turn for the worse, it will be up to Panetta and Dempsey to scramble to hold it together.

(Additional reporting by Chris Allbritton, Qasim Nauman and Michael Georgy in Islamabad; Editing by Warren Strobel and Paul Simao)