David Ignatius
Opinion writer June 16, 2011

It’s always painful to watch a love affair go sour, as the unrealistic expectations and secret betrayals come crashing down in a chorus of recrimination. That’s what’s happening now between the United States and Pakistan, and it has a soap-operatic quality, in Washington and Islamabad alike. “How could they treat us so badly?” is the tone of political debate in both capitals.

If this were a feuding couple, you’d counsel a cooling-off period, as they recover their wounded pride and balance. And that’s probably the right advice for America and Pakistan, too. These two countries have been bitterly disappointed in the relationship — with each seemingly incapable of understanding what upsets the other — but they have overriding common interests, too.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

“There are points of friction, but there is no breakdown,” says Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington who has worked hard to avert a crackup, even when that has meant challenging his own military. Most senior U.S. policymakers would agree with his assessment.

After the cooling-off period, the relationship will be different — with a greater show of respect for Pakistani independence. That’s a good thing, even from the standpoint of U.S. interests. The old embrace had become suffocating, with the Pakistani military looking to its public like a lackey of the United States. This was producing growing national shame and indignation, similar to the anger that toppled Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.

When looking at recent events in Pakistan, it’s important to remind yourself of some basic realities:

l  It’s not surprising that the Pakistanis arrested people suspected as CIA informants on the Osama bin Laden raid and other operations. Working with a foreign intelligence service (even a “friendly” one with good motives) is a no-no in any country. Just ask Jonathan Pollard, who spied for Israel and is still in a U.S. prison more than two decades later. I’m told that four of the five informants arrested in Pakistan have now been released.

l It’s not bad that Pakistani corps commanders (and some leading Pakistani journalists and politicians) are questioning the army chief of staff, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. This dissent frightens Americans who worry about proto-jihadists in the army, but that fear is overdone. Pushback against the military leadership is healthy, and Pakistan needs more of it, not less.

l It’s not wrong for Pakistanis to bristle over what they see as threats to their sovereignty. In any nation, the military is a symbol of independence and national pride. When national sovereignty is seen to be compromised — as by the raid on bin Laden’s compound and regular Predator drone attacks — people get upset. The United States should continue to take unilateral military action against threats (we have our sovereign interests, too). But secrecy in such matters is important to avoid humiliating our partner.

What should we expect from the “odd couple,” going forward?

First, the two countries this month created what they’re calling a “joint counterterrorism task force” to oversee operations. One goal will be quicker action to avoid tipping off the enemy — as seemed to happen between the May 19 delivery of CIA intelligence about two Taliban bomb factories in the tribal areas and the June 4 Pakistani assault. This joint group is intended to satisfy Pakistani demands that the United States curb its unilateral intelligence operations.

Second, the Pakistanis plan to end the CIA’s use of the Shamsi air base in southwest Pakistan as a staging area for Predator drone attacks. But they can’t (and won’t) stop Predator missions that originate in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the United States will keep supplying F-16s and may replace two P-3 Orion surveillance planes destroyed in a terrorist attack in Karachi last month.

Third, Pakistani cooperation with U.S. Special Forces will continue but on a less visible scale. The Pakistanis will take over what had been a joint training mission for the Frontier Corps at Warsak, northwest of Peshawar. But over the next few months, the overall U.S. Special Forces presence will probably return to roughly what it was before the recent flap.

Fourth, the United States will consult Pakistan as it seeks a political settlement in Afghanistan. A team working for Marc Grossman, the U.S. special representative overseeing those negotiations, recently visited Islamabad to brief officials there.

These arrangements aren’t ideal from the U.S. standpoint, but they should allow continued cooperation against a terrorist adversary that threatens both countries. And over the long run, this new framework is better than a domineering U.S. approach that has the effect of blowing up Pakistan.

davidignatius@washpost.com