Divorces don't happen overnight, but there's always that one moment, that one comment when -- perhaps only in retrospect -- you can see the split coming. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta's recent trip to Afghanistan may have been unannounced, but he wasn't shy when it came to speaking about Pakistan. Panetta said quite openly that the United States is losing patience with Pakistan, especially when it comes to Islamabad's failure -- or unwillingness -- to act against the Haqqani Network, a Taliban- and al Qaeda-affiliated group known to target Americans in Afghanistan from safe havens in Pakistan.
The remarks came as a surprise, as their timing coincides with U.S. negotiations with Pakistan to re-open NATO routes, but what Panetta said is hardly new. In fact, as he sat in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last September, he listened to Adm. Mike Mullen convey a similar message when the outgoing Joint Chief of Staff chairmen let loose, calling the Haqqani Network a veritable arm of Pakistan's intelligence service. Congress, the State Department, and the White House have also become more publicly forthcoming on this issue in the past year. So, instead of being shocked at Panetta's words, we should be shocked by their consistency. For once, the United States is on message when it comes to our "friend" and "ally" in South Asia.
The consistency and timing of the U.S. message provides new insight into the direction of relations with Pakistan. The Obama administration usually uses the Haqqani card to pressure Islamabad to turn on its strategic ally when it is linked to attacks on U.S. interests. The last time the administration turned up the heat was after the brazen Sept. 13, 2011, attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. Panetta's comments could be viewed as a response to the June 1 attack on the U.S.-run Camp Solerno that occurred in Khost, a known Haqqani Network stronghold. But the reason for the latest rise in rhetoric is likely exactly what Panetta says it is -- a loss of patience that signals the beginning of the end of a relationship with a country that has long underestimated levels of U.S. discontent with its behavior, despite its shrewd understanding of and ability to profit over its strategic value to the United States over the past 10 years.
The NATO overland supply routes in Pakistan have been closed for more than six months now -- an unprecedented amount of time. Despite ongoing negotiations to re-open routes, Washington has clearly been doing its homework on the alternatives. Nearly 75 percent of all surface cargo arrives in Afghanistan through current Central Asia routes known as the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) -- up 35 percent from last year. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced early this month that he had reached agreements with Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to allow the transit of troops and equipment both to and from Afghanistan. The expansion of routes with three separate nations does not happen overnight; it is the result of a deliberate effort of the Obama administration to become less dependent on Pakistan.
The generals in Islamabad -- who, for a decade now, have tried to play both sides -- should worry. Not only does Pakistan stand to lose revenue generated by the supply routes but it also faces international isolation. In the past, many of its questionable policies and relationships, most notably its nuclear proliferation activities and relations with the Taliban, have been overlooked because of its cooperation in the war on terror. A U.S.-Pakistan relationship in decline means this no longer holds. In addition to Pakistan's links to the Haqqani Network, other realities are now fair game for public criticism, such as the open residence of senior Taliban leadership and their families in Pakistan; the prevalence of Islamist thinking among the military; state support for anti-Indian terrorists and other militants; treatment of women and religious and ethnic minorities; and the frequency of journalist deaths and moderate politicians.
But public criticism should be the least of Islamabad's worries. Moves are already afoot to isolate Pakistan. The draft National Defense Authorization Act 2013 proposes an earmark of $1.75 billion in Coalition Support Funds for Pakistan -- but only to be made available once NATO routes re-open. Congress recently introduced two bills on Shakil Afridi, the doctor imprisoned by Pakistan for assisting the CIA in the Osama bin Laden operation. One bill calls for Afridi to receive the Congressional Gold Medal while the other provides for his relief by deeming him a U.S. citizen. Congress also proposed to cut $33 million in aid -- $1 million for each year of the 33-year sentence Afridi received. Despite these antagonistic moves, the United States and Pakistan have not hit rock bottom yet. There is always the possibility of placing Pakistan on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, a return to sanctions -- or worse yet, unilateral U.S. ground operations similar to that of the bin Laden raid on Pakistan's territory against targets such as the Haqqani Network.