Officials have hailed the freeing of a hostage U.S.-Canadian family by Pakistan’s army as a positive step toward rebuilding ties between Islamabad and Washington, but a fresh start in relations seems unlikely.
For years, Pakistan and the United States have been reluctant allies in the fight against the Taliban and other Islamist extremist groups. Following the raid that rescued American Caitlan Campbell, her Canadian husband, Joshua Boyle, and their three young children, U.S. President Donald Trump remarked that Pakistan was starting to “respect the United States again” in response to his adminstration’s tough-talking tactics.
But conflicting interests still remain between the two countries, and given Islamabad’s growing alliance with regional heavyweight China, analysts say the Trump’s administration’s vow to put more diplomatic pressure on Pakistan is unlikely to have any effect.
“This is a small occurrence between Pakistan and the U.S., and it should not be confused with the big issues that separate Pakistan and the U.S.,” said Pakistani security analyst Imtiaz Gul.
On October 13, five years after they were kidnapped in Afghanistan, Campbell and Boyle flew home with the three children born while they were captives of the Haqqani network, a violent Taliban sub-group that Washington has in particular accused Pakistan of failing to do enough to combat.
Some say the timing is a goodwill gesture ahead of upcoming visits by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this hostage release was announced when you have a parade of top Trump administration officials in Islamabad to deliver strongly worded warnings to Pakistan,” said Michael Kugelman, a South Asia specialist at the Woodrow Wilson Center. “Going after hostages is not the same thing as going after the terrorists holding them.”
Pakistan still resents the unilateral U.S. operations that took place on its soil in 2011 to kill Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, as well as last year’s drone strike that Taliban leader Akhtar Mansur.
In return, U.S. officials harbor suspicions that both bin Laden and Mansur were able to live in Pakistan with the tacit support of at least some elements of the powerful military. Washington also maintains that the Taliban -- which has been seeking to regain a foothold in Kabul since the U.S.-backed military intervention in 2001 -- would not have been able to gain so much ground against Afghan government forces in recent years without safe havens in Pakistan.
In August, the Trump administration warned that it might cut aid to Pakistan and downgrade the country’s status as a major non-NATO ally to pressure it to do more to help in Afghanistan, where the United States has been fighting its longest-running war.
But Pakistani officials bristle at allegations that Islamabad is not doing enough to tackle Islamist militants, particularly the Haqqanis, saying they have cooperated for years and launched military operations to push out militants from its soil.
The deepening ties Pakistan has been building with China, however, make it less vulnerable to threats of cuts in U.S. aid. China is financing some $57 billion in infrastructure projects, Gul said.
Critics say the Pakistani military nurtures the Taliban and other Islamist factions because they are seen as potentially useful to Pakistan’s core confrontation with archrival India.
Pakistan’s establishment is deeply troubled by the Trump administration’s recent talk of a “regional strategy” for Afghanistan, which would include a bigger role for India, said Mosharraf Zaidi, an Islamabad-based commentator and former Pakistan Foreign Ministry adviser.
“It seems like for the U.S., and President Trump has said so, that India is going to be a big part of the future of Afghanistan, and for Pakistan that’s not on the table,” he said.
Pakistan could also be offended further by Trump’s implication that the nuclear power has bowed to pressure.
“Given that people understand that respect for America is a big deal for Trump and a big deal for the American people, it shouldn’t be so hard to understand why Pakistan ... also wants to be respected,” Zaidi said.
With reporting by Drazen Jorgic and Asif Shahzad for Reuters