By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 25, 2010; A12
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- Despite a string of high-profile visits designed to reassure Pakistan of Washington's commitment, U.S. officials have failed to win over a military and civilian establishment here that remains suspicious of U.S. ties to India and reluctant to plunge into war with Afghan militants who may outlast the U.S. presence.
Differences between the two partners could cause problems at the international conference on Afghanistan that opens Thursday in London, which will be attended by 60 countries. President Obama has called Pakistan crucial to the success of the new U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.
In a visit here last week that included speeches and interviews on local television, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates declared repeatedly that the United States respects Pakistani sovereignty, regrets having curtailed military ties with Islamabad after the end of the Afghan-Soviet war in 1989 and has no desire to open military bases here or seize control of Pakistan's nuclear assets.
Gates also offered to provide Pakistan with unarmed, unmanned surveillance planes. The gesture intended to ease Pakistani concerns about the increasing use of U.S. armed drones to launch missile strikes against al-Qaeda and Taliban targets in Pakistan's remote tribal areas.
' Nevertheless, the responses he received from the army and the press here were either skeptical or defiant. Washington has been urgently pressing military officials to take on Islamic militants in the tribal area of North Waziristan, but the officials announced during Gates's visit that they could not launch any operation for at least six months.
In a speech at the National Defense University in Islamabad, Gates acknowledged that the United States had made a "grave mistake" by abandoning Pakistan in the past and said it now seeks to rebuild relations with "a new generation of Pakistani officers." But once journalists were ushered out, the military audience peppered him with skeptical questions. According to several sources, one questioner even asked him, "Are you with us or against us?"
The Pakistani media focused their coverage on a gaffe by Gates on the sensitive topic of private U.S. security firms working here. Answering a question, he inadvertently implied that the security company formerly known as Blackwater is working for the U.S. government in Pakistan, which U.S. and Pakistani officials have repeatedly denied. The secretary's slip dominated the national airwaves for 48 hours, and fueled already rampant speculation that the firm's employees are serving as spies.
Although some of the negative reaction may be nationalistic hype or negotiating tactics, analysts and diplomats said, it also reflects a deep divergence of views between the two countries, even though their governments are allied in a costly fight against Islamic extremists.
"Many people here feel Pakistan and the U.S. cannot be strategic partners, that this is only a marriage of convenience. They are in the same bed but they have different dreams," said Rifaat Hussain, a professor of defense and security studies at Quaid-I-Azam University in Islamabad.
One major obstacle, analysts said, is the close relationship between the United States and India. India-Pakistan relations are mired in mistrust, with India suspecting Pakistan of colluding in a terrorist attack in Mumbai in late 2008, and Pakistan suspecting that India uses Afghanistan to launch anti-Pakistan subversion.
For some Pakistanis, the message of support delivered by Gates and other recent visitors, including special envoy Richard Holbrooke, has been discredited by similar U.S. messages of support for India. Washington sees India's active role in Afghanistan as a force for stability, but Pakistan sees it as a threat and has been reaching out to other regional powers, including Iran, for counterbalancing support.
The other major obstacle, analysts said, is Pakistan's concern that if its armed forces expand operations and go after allies of the Afghan Taliban, this will invite retribution from radical groups that have so far refrained from attacking Pakistan, and that could end up sharing power in Afghanistan after Western forces withdraw.
Analysts pointed out that key militant leaders in North Waziristan, especially Sirajuddin Haqqani and Hafiz Gulbahadur, have honored longtime peace agreements with Pakistan while attacking U.S. troops in Afghanistan. If provoked, these leaders could marshal thousands of fighters against government forces.
"If the army goes into North Waziristan, it will stir up a hornet's nest," said Imtiaz Gul, director of the Center for Research and Security Studies. He said that the region is full of young men eager to fight for Islam, and that it would be difficult to isolate militant factions from one other. "There is a fusion of interests that would be a lethal combination for the security establishment," Gul said.
The army's spokesman said that its forces were stretched too thin after months of fighting in South Waziristan and the Swat Valley to open a new front, and that they need more time to consolidate their gains.
Analysts and diplomats said the army's delaying tactics were in part a gambit to win more U.S. military aid and in part a reflection of the toll taken by the fighting. The army has said it has lost 250 to 300 troops, mostly to explosive devices, and that officers made up a disturbingly high proportion of the dead.
Other observers pointed to a cultural cause for the disconnect between the United States and Pakistan, despite the recent infusion of U.S. economic aid and the fence-mending visits from Washington. Pakistanis understand the need to curb violent militant groups, they said, but do not want to be seen as doing Washington's bidding.
"You are a superpower and we will help you fight the extremists, but you cannot buy us," said Talha Mehmood, a senator from a pro-government religious party. "You can give us aid, but give us respect and dignity, too. Otherwise, you will spill your blood and spend your money, and the people will still hate you."