Maybe he’s happy with his consolation prize after all. Reportedly bruised in the ego after being passed by for Secretary of State, Senator John Kerry has since served as President Barack Obama’s fire extinguisher in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The opportunity, though fraught with peril, allows the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to bask in the spotlight of an important geopolitical arena.
In Afghanistan, Kerry’s coziness with President Hamid Karzai ultimately superseded the latter’s frosty relationship with former envoy Richard Holbrooke. Meanwhile the administration and key Pakistani officials have showered Kerry with praise. Even before his tour of Pakistan’s flooded disaster zones in August 2010, Ambassador Hussain Haqqani warmly declared that, “Senator Kerry cares about Pakistan. A lot of Pakistanis recognize that.’’
Not enough, apparently. That the Osama bin Laden affair is currently fueled by a distrust in Islamabad doesn’t negate the reality that Pakistani public opinion remains decisively opposed to U.S. foreign policy: in Afghanistan, within their own country, and in India and Kashmir. Reversing this pattern was the Kerry-Lugar bill’s self-stated goal.
Now Kerry finds himself back in Islamabad to clean up the bloody, conspiratorial trail of Osama bin Laden, who was killed by SEALs 60 miles north in Abbottabad. As Obama’s carrot man he’s the logical choice for a cleaner. Pakistani officials like Kerry because he usually isn’t as hard as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or the parade of U.S. military officials. That’s why he was sent to lay the wood down this time - he possessed one of the highest chances of being well received.
His own bill, a $7 billion aid package, is also on the line in Congress, forcing him to sell the consequences to both capitals.
The immediate pay-out sounds appealing at face value. Two hours with President Asif Ali Zardari, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani and Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani yielded a “reset” in U.S.-Pakistani relations. A subsequent statement issued by Zardari and by US Embassy agreed that, “all tracks of US-Pakistan engagement need to be revisited with a view to creating a clear understanding on ways and means to carry forward their cooperation in a mutually beneficial manner.”
"It was agreed that the two sides would intensify their engagement through official channels and that negative media messages were misplaced and detrimental to the core national interests of both US and Pakistan.”
In pressing Islamabad to participate in future high-value raids, Kerry hopes to reassure a skeptical Congress of Pakistan’s allegiance. However these threats are nothing more a bluff, as Washington remains desperate for Islamabad’s cooperation in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Moreover, those same Republicans calling out Pakistan favor sustained operations in Afghanistan, fully revealing their own weak position. The possibility that Kerry repaired any damage in Congress is unlikely; negative media in both countries will persist.
Kerry’s visit stands a better chance of repeating past trips. Sent to sell his bill among criticism that Pakistan was doing America’s heavy lifting for cheap (the economic cost is estimated above $100 billion), Kerry has since toured flood zones and attempted to extract CIA agent Raymond Davis in February 2011. Each time the Senator sparked a short-term boost in political relations, with minimal change in public opinion. Although declaring, “The road ahead will not be defined by words. It will be defined by actions,” Kerry fails to acknowledge that U.S. actions have already defined the past and future.
Bin Laden has proven a viable excuse to flip all of Washington’s problems in Afghanistan back on Islamabad. Yet this isn’t the message that Pakistanis, deeply distrustful of both governments, want to hear. Nor do the less public faces of Pakistan’s military and intelligence services.
America's poorly calculated invasion of Afghanistan spawned the initial TTP under Nek Muhammad Wazir, and now Pakistan must suffer the consequences long after bin Laden's demise.
Kerry isn’t a fixer - he patches up unresolved problems until the next time they overload. Tense relations have continued despite all of his visits, even after America spearheaded foreign relief efforts during an epic flood. Never have the region’s fundamentals actually changed. Drone strikes provide a regular possibility of disaster, a stubbornly militarized strategy persists in Afghanistan, U.S.-Indian relations dictate U.S.-Pakistani relations, and another controversy is always waiting around the corner.
Kerry should know the dirty details of Davis's case all too well. In the immediate aftermath of January 27th, when Davis shot and killed two Pakistanis in Lahore, Washington reacted as though its whole policy was about to crumble. After insisting that Davis held diplomatic immunity, U.S. officials lobbed threat after threat at Islamabad to no avail. Kerry was eventually deployed to quell an overwhelmingly negative response to U.S. pressure, viewed as arrogant and insensitive in the wake of Davis’s murders.
Although he didn’t have much luck - Davis’s immunity status was frozen in legal procedures - U.S. officials ultimately succeeded in their goal. Davis also posed the danger that they suspected. Deployed as part of an off-grid intelligence network within Pakistan, initial speculation after bin Laden’s death brought Davis into the mix. True or not, CIA officials then monitoring bin Laden’s compound knew they had to get Davis out at all costs, fearing a reprisal attack. U.S. officials worked around the clock to free him, maintaining their threatening posture in public while frantically maneuvering in private.
Eventually the process of diyat, or blood money, was raised and completed the day of Davis’s immunity hearing. Released under a storm of controversy, Davis had already been flown into Afghanistan by the time his victims’ relatives were paid off. Having disappeared from public view for the next two months, one of the fathers recently surfaced to say that U.S. officials were taking Davis regardless of whether he accepted diyat. After infamously refusing to speak on Davis’s release - except to say that Washington hadn’t offered any money - Clinton spoke the truth through technicalities.
Pakistani officials had stained their own hands with the blood money, and Geelani and Zardari overruled the army to release Davis. This news, released only days ago, had already added to the erosion of public confidence by the time Kerry returned yesterday. Days before his arrival, reports surfaced of U.S. teams tasked to Pakistani nuclear material.
The backdrop to U.S.-Pakistani relations as a whole remains client-based, unlike China's "all-weather relationship." This equation has merely been reinforced by bin Laden’s death and the numerous U.S. officials landing in Islamabad to reprimand its leadership. Beneath the surface lie all of the usual problems, and uncertainty over U.S. strategy in Afghanistan will further aggravate these tensions. A drone struck the day after Davis’s release and happened to mark Kerry’s latest visit, an event he felt compelled to apologize for. Always reaction, rarely proaction in Pakistan.
Soon another controversy will erupt after this new “reset,” and Kerry will find himself back on a plane to Islamabad.