John Kerry and Pakistan: the road ahead
6 Feb 2013|
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry displays his first diplomatic passport, while delivering welcome remarks to U.S. Department of State employees in Washington, D.C., February 4, 2013.

The United States now has a new Secretary of State, and of John Kerry’s major challenges will be to manage the relationship with Pakistan, a nuclear-armed state that is increasingly showing signs of fragility. The good news is that the appointment of Kerry should, on the whole, be well received in Pakistan.

Pakistan has always considered John Kerry to be more sympathetic to its security concerns than Hillary Clinton. And while US–Pakistan relations have improved in the last six months, bilateral relations between the two countries were for mostly poor under Clinton’s watch. Relations were particularly bad for about 8 months in 2011–2012 when, following the killing of 25 Pakistani soldiers by NATO aircraft, Pakistan refused to allow NATO convoys to travel through the country to transport non-lethal material to the Coalition forces in Afghanistan. Only when Clinton finally delivered an apology of sorts did the convoys begin to roll again.

In contrast, it seems that John Kerry has been a force for good in the relationship, being instrumental in breaking two deadlocks over the past few years which has helped put the relationship back on track. The first followed the arrest of CIA operative Raymond Davies by Pakistani authorities for the suspected murder of two Pakistanis in Lahore in January 2011. When claims of diplomatic immunity for Davis failed, Kerry was sent in to negotiate a customary solution in which blood money was paid to the victims’ family and to request they absolve the accused under Islamic law. After Kerry’s visit, Davis was released. In May 2011 Kerry’s help was again sought, this time to help end a deep freeze following the covert operation on Pakistani territory that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden by US Navy SEALs. According to reports, Pakistan was only informed of the raid once it was over.

John Kerry was instrumental as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee for the passing of the Kerry-Lugar Bill in 2009 which tripled non-military aid for Pakistan to $1.5 billion per year. While this was generally welcomed in Pakistan, many in the Pakistani military establishment did not warm up to some of the Bill’s clauses which demanded greater transparency in military and nuclear matters.

So while Kerry may appear to be more Pakistan-friendly than Clinton, we shouldn’t expect all smooth sailing either. The biggest irritants will still be there when Kerry takes office: the continued presence of the Taliban fighters in the tribal areas of western Pakistan from where they launch many of their attacks into Afghanistan, particularly the members of the Haqqani Network, and the increased use of American drones strikes against terrorist targets in these tribal areas.

While the drone strikes have been particularly effective against the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, killing many of its top and middle-ranking leaders, the inevitable death of Pakistani civilians has been a very sore point in the relationship. Publicly, the Pakistani authorities have repeatedly demanded that these drone strikes cease immediately, but privately the Pakistanis can’t be too upset to see some of the Pakistani insurgents that their own military have been fighting getting killed. And while Kerry stated at his confirmation hearing that US foreign policy is not defined by drones alone, nevertheless don’t expect any policy change in the use of drones. As a matter of fact, Washington has excluded Pakistan from the Obama Administration’s new ‘playbook’ which defines the rules for assassinating terrorists. So I suspect there will an increase in the use of drones as the US begins to drawn down its 68,000 troops from Afghanistan.

As for the continued presence of the Afghan Taliban fighters in the tribal areas, especially in North Waziristan, the US has to all intents and purposes given up on getting the Pakistani army to move against them. And while the Pakistan army has repeatedly promised it would launch an operation against these fighters—the corps commander based in Peshawar assured me in June last year that it would—Islamabad has no appetite to do so, certainly not in the near future.

Notwithstanding these two irritants, the nomination of John Kerry will be an opportunity for the two countries to continue the improvement in their bilateral relations. It will be particularly important under Kerry’s watch for these relations to work well at all levels given that his term in office will straddle 2014, the all-important year when US combat troops leave Afghanistan. He’ll have almost two years in the lead-up to 2014 to ensure that the transition to full Afghan security control goes smoothly, and two more years afterwards to monitor how a post-NATO Afghan government fares without Western forces to prop it up. Pakistan’s role in the lead up to 2014 and beyond will be crucial to ensure that there is regional stability, and Washington has repeatedly acknowledged this fact.

Kerry’s professional and personal experience of foreign issues (he lived overseas as a teenager) should help him adroitly manage the bilateral relationship. He reportedly has good professional and personal ties with both Pakistani and Afghan leaders, having spent time working with Afghanistan’s President Karzai. His 30 years in the US Senate, most of them on the Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee, gives him credentials which Clinton could never hope to match. But beware, it won’t all be plain sailing, and we can expect bumps in the US–Pakistan relationship. It comes with the territory.

Claude Rakisits is associate professor in Strategic Studies at Deakin University. He is Canberra-based. Image courtesy of US Department of State.