Tensions Continue To Rise Between US And Pakistan

Nov 5, 2013
Originally published on November 5, 2013 4:12 pm

Pakistan’s parliament will discuss the country’s ties to the U.S., after an American drone strike killed Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud last week.

Pakistanis reacted angrily, saying the strike violated its sovereignty.

“The two sides will continue to need each other and to continue to distrust each other,” Owen Bennett Jones, a BBC contributor based in Pakistan, told Here & Now‘s Robin Young.


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And now, a story that can be confusing for some Americans: Why is Pakistan so angry after that U.S. drone strike that killed a Taliban leader who has killed and wounded so many Pakistanis in very violent and graphic ways? He endorsed the attack that so badly injured the young activist and Nobel Peace Prize candidate Malala Yousufzai.

The BBC's Owen Bennett-Jones is just back from Pakistan. Owen, many Americans are, of course, against drone strikes. But others are wondering, why the Pakistan anger?

OWEN BENNETT-JONES: Well, it is confusing. And we should say, perhaps at the beginning, there are some liberal voices who say that America has helped Pakistan with this. And they're tweeting a lot at the moment. They tend to be the people who are on Twitter and that sort of thing. And they're saying, look, for heaven's sake. This man has killed thousands of Pakistanis. This is a positive development.

But the vast bulk of opinion in Pakistan doesn't agree with that. They see this as a humiliation, as America breaching Pakistani sovereignty. And somehow, public opinion has turned to seeing Hakimullah Mehsud not as a mass murderer but as a martyr. It is a sign of just how deep the anti-Americanism is in Pakistan.

YOUNG: Well, it's funny because when Malala was in Boston, visiting us a couple of weeks ago, she said that the day before, she'd met with President Obama. And the one thing she wanted to tell him was, no more drone strikes because although they are going after the bad guys, they are turning Pakistanis against the U.S.

BENNETT-JONES: Well, that is true. I mean, there is a nuance to that which is quite interesting, which is that if you go - the closer you get to the places where the drones are actually landing, the more support for them there is. Now, that seems like a counterintuitive thing to say. But having just spent 10 days roaming around Pakistan, the horrors I'm about to share, I'm sure that's right.

And the reason is that these Taliban commanders and fighters are causing absolute havoc in the tribal areas. They are going around killing people, beheading them. They are cutting people's limbs off, writing graffiti in blood from severed limbs on walls, an absolutely depraved behavior. And people are terrified of them. And these drones come along and kill them.

So in the areas themselves where these drones are landing, there is actually a lot of people saying, they're extremely accurate, these drones, and they are killing some very frightening people. But if you go through Pakistan as a whole, as you've heard and as you're reflecting in your questions, there is a widespread view in mainstream Pakistan that these drones are a breach of Pakistani sovereignty, that they help encourage an anti-American narrative, help encourage recruitment to jihadi organizations, and that they should stop.

YOUNG: Yeah. What about the claim by Pakistani officials that they were close to bringing Hakimullah Mehsud into peace talks? We've talked about this on the program last week, and it sounded more as if both Afghanistan and Pakistan were using the Taliban as pawns in a - kind of a tug-of-war between the two countries, both detaining Taliban leaders, keeping them from peace talks or accusing another country of detaining them. What's really true about what Pakistan officials thought they were going to achieve with Hakimullah Mehsud?

BENNETT-JONES: Right. So the talks - well, I think, actually, it has more of a - just a straight Pakistani logic. It's not really got much to do with Afghanistan. Basically, the governments come in on a platform and said, you know, went in the election campaign saying, we'll open a dialogue. And Imran Khan, the cricketer-turned-politician, said the same thing. And those two parties did their best in the election.

So I mean, you know, there was a mandate for talks. Now, there's absolutely nobody in the army or, really, in the political class, to be honest, that think talks would work. I mean, they've had many, many talks before. They've all failed. About 14 rounds of agreements and so on, all of them breached by the Taliban.

The Taliban's goal is to govern Pakistan. There's absolutely nothing to talk about. But people are so sick of the violence that they just hope to bring it to an end. Really, these talks are about a ceasefire. So that was that. And, you know, the government said they are committed to people who were behind that.

And this American strike, I think, is very unfortunately timed. And I mean, it gives the government the perfect excuse to say, look, the talks failed because of the Americans and not because it is never going work. So that's now all in play. We'll have to see whether they can get a dialogue process under way. If they do, nobody really expects it to work. It may help build legitimacy for military action after it's failed.

YOUNG: Well - so, Owen Bennett-Jones, what are you saying? Do you think the U.S. made a huge misstep here?

BENNETT-JONES: Yeah. The timing of this is very, very unfortunate because the talks are about to begin. And now, it is inevitable that - I mean, they're already saying it. The government saying this process failed because of America. And so once again, the anti-Americanism gets stoked up. People think that they're not in charge of their own destiny, that the Americans are interfering in their affairs in a negative way. So, you know, that is, inevitably, what's going to be said.

YOUNG: And what do you think happens going forward? Secretary of State John Kerry says he thinks the drone strikes will be curtailed. We had victims of the drone strikes, survivors of U.S. drone strikes who were innocents and had lost family members, civilians who were mistakenly killed in U.S. drone strikes who came to Washington last week to testify. But what is your sense of what's actually going to happen with the U.S. drone strikes going forward? And what's going to happen with U.S.-Pakistan relations?

BENNETT-JONES: Well, presumably the drone strikes will diminish, because, you know, as the Americans withdraw from Afghanistan, then that justification for the drone strikes, you know, a force protection measure, will go away. So, you know, one has to think that for that - I mean, there are already far fewer than they were. I mean, this year, there will be far fewer drone strikes than in previous years. So they are diminishing. And, you know, as you say, the administration is saying they will diminish further.

So what's going to happen after that? Well, you know, the likelihood is that the American funds will dry up for Pakistan and Afghanistan and that the resentment will become even more acute. Those people will say, you used us to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan for your own purposes, and now you've abandoned us just like you did after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. So, you know, I don't think there's much sign of very positivity in the American-Pakistani relationship.

YOUNG: Well, on that note, the BBC's Owen Bennett-Jones. And by the way, what does that matter? What does that matter if U.S.-Pakistan relations are soured?

BENNETT-JONES: Well, I mean, you've got to ask the question, what happens if there's another attack on America from Pakistani or Afghan soil? Is it all going to happen again? You know, is there going to be another - what do you want to call it - invasion or overthrow of a government, more American troops on the ground to try and dismantle any organizations that are on Pakistani, Afghani soil? I mean, that would matter.

And, you know, short of that, there are the nuclear issues and various other things that do bother America. So I can't imagine America, you know, wants to have a complete deterioration in its relationship with Pakistan. I mean, we know that. That's why Washington puts up with what it considers so much abuse in this relationship, you know? So it distrusts Pakistan so much but still puts up with all the things that Pakistan does because it needs Pakistan. So the two sides will continue to need each other and to continue to distrust each other.

YOUNG: The BBC's Owen Bennett-Jones. Thanks so much.

BENNETT-JONES: Pleasure. Thank you.

YOUNG: And you're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.