Is troubled US-Pakistan marriage heading for divorce?
10 May 2011
By Andrew North
BBC News, Washington
The relationship between the US and Pakistan has often been compared to a troubled marriage.
A week since Osama Bin Laden's discovery, living under the noses of the Pakistani intelligence services, some wonder if it's heading for divorce.
Some US lawmakers are threatening to suspend billions of dollars in annual aid. Some commentators say Pakistan should be declared a rogue state.
It hardly looked as though Pakistan was trying to patch things up when its prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani announced an inquiry into how Bin Laden came to be hiding in "plain sight" then in the next breath exonerated its military intelligence service, the ISI - the body seen as most likely to have known about it.
The name of the CIA's station chief in Islamabad has also leaked - for the second time this year. That's being seen as ISI retaliation for its embarrassment over the night-time US raid.
It may be this is all an elaborate smokescreen by the Pakistani government, to minimise the domestic backlash it is facing.
That's the implication of a Guardian story that there was a secret deal allowing US forces to conduct unilateral raids inside Pakistan if they knew Bin Laden's hiding place, with Washington accepting that the Pakistani government would then publicly denounce the assault.
For its part the White House is still trying to keep the marriage alive - press spokesman Jay Carney emphasising how much Pakistan has done to combat terrorism in his latest briefing - rather than what it hasn't.
"Important" but "complicated" was his description of the relationship.
As in the past, both sides still need each other too much.
Fear drives the relationship too, amid US concerns about what could happen to Pakistan's nuclear weapons if the government was to fall.
But things are at a turning point, says Andrew Wilder, an expert on Pakistan at the United States Institute of Peace.
Important as the relationship is, the "US can't continue with a business as usual approach in its relations with Pakistan when there is now so little trust".
In private the White House is believed to have made a series of demands of Pakistan, including help tracking down other al-Qaeda figures and ending support for the Afghan Taliban.
Though the Pakistani government denies it, it's widely thought that the Taliban leader Mullah Omar has been sheltering in or near the south-western city of Quetta.
US lawmakers like Senator Frank Lautenberg want tough action now, including the suspension of financial aid.
"Before we send another dime, we need to know whether Pakistan truly stands with us in the fight against terrorism."
That is unlikely to happen immediately, but US officials hope such threats will focus minds in Islamabad - especially as the Pakistani military depends so much on these funds.
US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton is due to travel there soon.
One sign the pressure may be working is news that Pakistan may allow American agents access to Bin Laden's wives, who were found in the compound after the special forces raid.
But Pakistan watchers say Islamabad may simply try to ride things out until the furore over Bin Laden's death fades away, avoiding making any bigger concessions, such as ending its support for the Taliban in Afghanistan.
That's unlikely though as long as Pakistan feels it needs the Taliban in its rivalry with India - its main foreign policy interest, not America's war on al-Qaeda.
After all, it severed ties with the Taliban under US pressure after 9/11, only to revive them later.
US policy-makers acknowledge Pakistan's point of view.
"We have some more leverage right now," says one official. "But unless their fundamental concerns about their region are addressed, then it's hard to see how things will change. And that means its relations with India."
The key could be what the Obama administration does next in Afghanistan, with its announcement on possible troop withdrawals expected in July.
Longtime Pakistan-watcher Andrew Wilder believes a clearer US commitment to a peace settlement there could change its outlook.
At the moment, the Pakistanis are "still not clear what US policy in Afghanistan is".
As long as they believe the US emphasis is focused on defeating the Taliban militarily, Wilder argues, the Pakistanis will continue its "hedging game" of backing the Taliban against "what they see as undue Indian influence in Afghanistan".
On the other hand, he says that if they believe the US is interested in a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan, with the Taliban at the table, then Pakistan "may prove to be a more constructive partner than they have been to date".
This marriage may be facing its biggest test yet, but it's not over.