From global bad boy to regional good guy: Pakistan overhauls its image

Students display Pakistan's national flag as they celebrate the eve of Independence Day in Karachi, Pakistan, on Aug. 13. Rehan Khan / EPA

News analysis

ABBOTTABAD, Pakistan -- In the post 9/11 world, Pakistan came of age as a global bad boy: A corrupt, barely democratic, nuclear-armed haven of international militancy that was two-faced in its dealings with the outside world when it came to the war on terror.

Its reputation fell further in 2011 when U.S intelligence agencies discovered Osama bin Laden living a family life in leafy Abbottabad -- not far from Pakistan's version of West Point.

Islamabad was accused of "two-timing the U.S. while taking its aid" and giving shelter to the world’s most-wanted terrorist as well as allowing its territory to be used as a launchpad by militants targeting Western troops across the border in Afghanistan.

But that image is changing.

The country remains violent: Jihadist, ethnic, sectarian and criminal terror continue to haunt most of its major cities and three of its four provinces on a daily basis; its crippling economic and power crises are nowhere near to being solved; and law and order are a low priority as the country struggles to decide how to fight terror, or curb it from crossing its borders. But those are internal issues.

Following the election of Nawaz Sharif as prime minister in May, Islamabad’s new economy-focused civilian government shares the same objectives as its military establishment - to appear competent and mature, to express that Pakistan means business and to appear like a responsible regional power. Building good relations with the U.S. "based on mutual respect and interest" is one of Sharif's top priorities, according to a senior aide.

With the planned withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan next year, Washington is more than prepared to deal with the one-time pariah state, according to Anatol Lieven, a professor of war studies at London’s Kings College. 

“The U.S. wants out of Afghanistan and it is very anxious to reach a peace deal," he said. "If the Taliban is not involved, the situation will collapse. So they have realized that Pakistan is essential when it comes to bringing them to the table.”

As relations have frayed with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who last year accused the U.S. and NATO of being to blame for some of his country's "insecurity," Pakistan appears to be a more stable ally in the region.

“The U.S. has been very fed-up with Karzai for a long time,” said Lieven, author of "Pakistan, A Hard Country."

“They realized he can’t stay beyond this current term and they are extremely reluctant to change the policy, which would allow him to stay. America has no real candidate to replace him, Karzai is extremely reluctant to leave and won’t like being sidelined by the U.S., making negotiations incredibly difficult. Pakistan, therefore, becomes even more important for regional stability.”

America was traditionally spun within Pakistan as a bogeyman: a self-serving, disinterested master who would feed the country weapons and aid and ignore the democratic inspirations of its people.

A truck carrying supplies for NATO forces in Afghanistan waits for clearance near the border at Chaman, Pakistan, on July 5, 2012. Pakistan's cabinet had approved the re-opening of supply routes a day earlier, ending a seven-month dispute. Akhter Gulfam / EPA, file

In 2011, relations between the two countries suffered a meltdown.

The operation to kill Osama bin Laden was carried out without Pakistan's knowledge. The terror chief's assassination came about four months after a CIA contractor killed two Pakistanis in the streets of Lahore. And in November, 24 Pakistani servicemen were killed by “mistake” as U.S. gunships launched a cross-border assault in the tribal area of Salala.

By 2012, Pakistan had shut off NATO’s lifeline routes to landlocked Afghanistan on which America and other military powers depend heavily for their operational supplies. It did so while building public pressure against America’s drone war – which Pakistan allowed to be operationally conducted on its territory while spinning the controversial program as a breach of sovereignty. It also shut down U.S. drone bases.

After a negotiated apology in the summer of 2012 from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the killing of the Pakistani soldiers – an incident now known as the “Salala Tragedy”- something changed.

Islamabad started acting – seemingly willingly – as a responsible stakeholder in the implementation of a lasting peace in Afghanistan. 

Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif walks with Secretary of State John Kerry during their meeting in Islamabad on Aug. 1. T. Mughal / EPA, file

First, it allowed NATO’s convoys to start rolling through its roads again. Next, it enabled and brokered a behind-the-scenes negotiation process that eventually saw the Afghan Taliban willing to engage with and talk to Washington and Kabul in Qatar.

Meanwhile, Pakistan shifted the rhetoric of its fiery drones narrative into neutral; not making too much of a fuss every time there is a CIA strike.

Critically, amid allegations of irregularities before and after May's Pakistani elections, the U.S. did not take a public position on the issue. Instead, it congratulated the new government and moved on. 

And State Department press releases started using the term "partner" again when it comes to Islamabad. 

The recent visit of Secretary of State John Kerry, his first to the country since taking over as Washington’s top diplomat, was minus the scandal, pomp and demands that usually accompany such tours. Instead, Kerry got a "non-paper" – a soft legal and diplomatic explanation of sorts – from Islamabad about an ongoing gas pipeline project between itself and Iran. Compare that to last year, when Pakistan told the U.S. to mind its own business when it came to Islamabad’s dealings with Tehran.

That’s a monumental shift, considering that until 2011, Pakistan was repeatedly called out for dragging its feet when it came to peace in the region. Comparatively, Karzai’s lame-duck administration is now considered the foot-dragger as the U.S., Pakistan and even the Taliban are willing to talk peace while Kabul hangs back.

Xenia Dormandy, a project director at London-based think tank Chatham House, said new players and new policies from both sides had created the environment for improved relations.

“Nawaz Sharif has come in with the express policies of improving relations with India, strengthening the economy and improving relations with America,” she said. “Relations reached their lowest ebb in 2011, but a distinct change in policy from the U.S., particularly relating to drone strikes, combined with new actors has created a window to improve diplomacy between the two countries.” 

Still, not everybody is buying the "feel good" narrative. Michael Kugelman, of Washington’s Wilson Center, saw the Kerry trip as more show than substance.

“Kerry’s trip to Pakistan was meant to reassure, not to reconcile,” Kugelman said. “It was a way of saying to Pakistan, 'Look, we haven’t forgotten about you and we still want to work with you.'

"Talk of a reset in relations is premature, because there are simply too many divergent interests, and too much mutual distrust. While restarting the strategic dialogue has useful symbolic value, I’m not optimistic about any substantive takeaways.”

Some see Pakistan’s motives as somewhat murkier. Thomas Ruttig, co-director of independent policy research group Afghanistan Analysts Network, believes the country’s leaders have made it clear to the U.S. that they think they have a major role in Afghanistan’s future.

“Pakistan wants to gain back full control over Taliban leaders residing in their country and over possible talks conducted by them,” he said. 

Last week, the sleepy but now infamous mountain town of Abbottabad came to life.

Bin Laden's mansion here was razed last year but all the action was centered at the nearby military academy as Pakistan marked its 67th Independence Day,

General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, the army chief who is considered the most powerful man in the country, addressed young cadets and concentrated on his country’s security crises. The new doctrine was obvious: Even on a day when skirmishes ensued with arch-enemy India, that longtime rival was dropped as a talking point. Instead, terror and militancy - enemies the U.S. has been pushing Pakistan to confront – were unequivocally branded the country’s primary and existential threats.

Later, a young cadet matter-of-factly explained his military’s new stance.

“America is bigger and stronger," he said. "Tomorrow, if it wants, it can do another Osama raid. We are an important country. We have to let the Americans know that the way out of Afghanistan runs through Pakistan."

Henry Austin reported from London.