US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (left) with India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi on June 6 (US Department of Defense photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo)
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta laughed like a school boy who had just filched a classmate’s lunch while describing the May, 2011 raid that killed Osama Bin Laden.
As a seasoned government functionary he could not have been unaware that his choice of New Delhi as the venue and leading Indian defense analysts as the audience to crack a joke about the Abbottabad raid last year would not go down well with Pakistan.
During his visit to the Indian capital Panetta on Wednesday addressed the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses on a wide range of issues. During a question and answer session that followed he said much to the amusement of the audience, “They (Pakistan) didn’t know about our operation. That was the whole idea.” He could barely stifle his own chuckle as he said that.
That the defense secretary was making a joke just a day after a US drone attack killed senior al-Qaeda leader Abu Yahya al-Libi in Pakistan’s northwest ought to make the slight even more hurtful.
On Friday, Panetta was in Kabul saying that America was reaching the “limits of its patience” with Pakistan “allowing terrorists to use their country as a safety net in order to conduct their attacks on our forces.”
If there ever was any doubt about the narrowing of US-Pakistan relations, Panetta removed it quite categorically by saying what he did in a span of the two days in capitals Islamabad is utterly loath to be ticked off and, worse, derided.
These utterances are almost always carefully orchestrated and meant to have precisely the kind of effect they are expected to have on Pakistan. Panetta knows he risks putting off Pakistan’s powerful security establishment which would rather that he stabbed its Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani’s chest with his index finger and hectored him than made light of the whole country in Delhi.
Here is how Pakistan’s security establishment is likely to view this: On June 5, a US drone kills al-Libi despite Pakistan’s parliament earlier strongly disapproving drone strikes, On June 6 Panetta jokes about the Abbottabad raid in Delhi and on June 8 he says in Kabul that Washington is running out of patience with Islamabad. The three together only mean being kicked thrice in the same spot. Even the extra starched military fatigues do not deflect the kick in the groin.
The US intention is to put very public pressure on Pakistan to act decisively and act now. It is a different matter that the outcome may be precisely to the contrary, pushing Pakistan even further into its nationalist shell.
The very public slight of Pakistan began during last month’s summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Chicago where President Barack Obama pointedly did not meet his Pakistani counterpart Asif Ali Zardari one-on-one. Then the displeasure shorn of any nuance was triggered by Islamabad refusing to reopen its border route so that overland supplies to the NATO troops in Afghanistan can be resumed. Pakistan has enforced a blockade ever since US airstrikes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in November last year. The blockade has come to symbolize the breakdown in bilateral relations between the two countries.
This slide in bilateral relations has been made only more hurried by Panetta’s less than tactful comments. It may well force Pakistan to reconsider its positions on various issues. It is unlikely to have been lost on the hyperactive Pakistani military leadership that the US now wants India to step up its involvement in Afghanistan or what Islamabad considers its strategic backyard.