Washington's New Pakistan Problem

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AFP / Getty

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani (L) shakes hands with US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte on his arrival at The Prime Minister House in Islamabad.

In diplomacy, perception is everything. The day that Pakistan's new prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was sworn in this week, two top American diplomats were there from Washington to congratulate him. The State Department says that deputy secretary of state John Negroponte and assistant secretary of state for South Asia Richard Boucher's trip had been "planned for weeks." But in Pakistan itself, the move was widely seen as a heavy-handed attempt to make sure the newly elected coalition government would continue to cooperate with the U.S. in battling militants along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

And so the U.S. is off to a rocky start in a Pakistan where its old ally, Pervez Musharraf, is a waning power. Condoleezza Rice told the Washington Times on Thursday that she hoped Pakistanis would see Negroponte and Boucher's visit, so early on in the formation of the new government, "as a sign of respect." They did not. Pakistani newspaper editorials called the early visit "meddling." The photo op was widely seen for what it was, a move by the U.S. to make sure the new government doesn't back down from Musharraf's level of cooperation in the Bush Administration's declared war on terror. Other diplomats advise a civil distance, for now. The U.S. should "give Pakistan space to publicly proclaim its own policy," says former Ambassador Teresita Schaffer, who spent 30 years in the foreign service, most of it devoted to South Asia, "without having the visual of the U.S. government breathing down its neck."

Washington has itself to blame for now having to play catchup with Pakistani politics. Until the defeat of Musharraf's party and its allies in the February elections, U.S. diplomats effectively ignored the alphabet soup of Pakistani parties. "Over the past six years political parties haven't had a voice," says a State Department official, "It has been a one-man show." The only Pakistani leader who mattered to the U.S. battle against violent extremists emanating from that country was Musharraf. The only sustained connection with an opposition party was a shaky and cynical alliance made with Benazir Bhutto and her Pakistan People's Party last year when Musharraf needed a buttress to his waning popular support. But when Musharraf went totally off the constitutional rails in November and Bhutto was killed by a suicide bomber in December, U.S. officials found themselves out of back-up plans.

Now they find themselves with reasons to worry — and are scrambling to establish anything approaching rapport with Pakistan's newly elected leaders. Over the past two weeks, key leaders of Pakistan's political elite have said openly that things are going to change. Nawaz Sharif, head of the Pakistan Muslim League (N), said in an interview the government should be willing to negotiate with Pakistani militants. "When you have a problem in your own family, you don't kill your own family" Sharif, who was twice elected prime minister in the 1990s, told the New York Times, "You sit and talk." Benazir Bhutto's widower Asif Ali Zardari said in a separate interview, "what they have been doing for the past eight years has not been working. Even a fool knows that."

So what will happen? The majority of Pakistanis recognize that militancy is a major problem. A recent spate of suicide bombings in Pakistan's cities has brought that reality home. Meanwhile, the most extreme Islamic parties took the biggest hit in the February elections. However, says former Ambassador Schaffer, "that doesn't mean we all agree on what needs to be done." Dealing with a complex coalition will be a lot harder than negotiating with a military dictator. For the past six years, the U.S. tied Pakistan's cooperation in targeting high level Al Qaeda operatives and shutting down militant training camps to a $10 billion package of military and economic aid. The new coalition government might take a different tack on U.S. handouts. Sharif has said that Pakistan should rely less on such U.S. assistance.

Prime Minister Gilani promised this week to confront terrorism "with determination." But when it comes to U.S. cooperation, Gillani told the high-level State Department delegation, "all important policy matters and decisions on important national issues would be taken through the parliament." Not the Pentagon.