6 Aug 2010

Cameron speaks of 'unbreakable relationship' with Pakistan

The meeting between David Cameron and President Zardari of Pakistan has ended with warm words, blogs Jonathan Rugman, but what is an agreement on combatting terrorism with Mr Zardari worth?

The meeting between David Cameron and President Zardari of Pakistan has ended with warm words from the prime minister about an “unbreakable relationship” and the planting of a tree in memory of the late Benazir Bhutto, Zardari’s wife, in the grounds of Chequers in Buckinghamshire.

This sombre event in bucolic countryside in England’s high summer could hardly be more symbolic of the deadly mutual threat faced by both countries, given that Benazir herself was killed by Islamist militants.The relationship seems to be on a better footing than it was last week, when Mr Cameron chose India of all places to accuse Pakistan of “looking both ways” in the battle to combat terrorism and of certain elements “exporting terror”.

Both sides say there will be more high level meetings between British and Pakistani officials, an annual UK-Pakistan summit and a visit by Mr Cameron to Pakistan, most likely within the next six months. Perhaps significantly though, there was no press conference after today’s visit, allowing any differences to be airbrushed out of the picture of back-slapping harmony. 

Downing Street  says today was about intensifying “strategic dialogue” and more cooperation against terrorism. What London wants is Britain’s aid budget of £665m over five years to deliver more in return – and perhaps especially deliver access to Pakistani decision-makers, something the Americans – who spend more than $1bn in military aid per year  – get rather more of. So Sir John Sawers, the head of MI6, will now have more regular meetings with the head of Pakistani intelligence, with government ministers from both sides meeting more regularly too.

But David Cameron has not retracted last week’s remarks and his view of Pakistan is surely no different this week than it was last. Things started to go seriously sour back to February, when Pakistan captured Mullah Baradar, the Afghan Taliban number 2, in a raid in the Pakistani city of Karachi.

British intelligence officials were on the brink of declaring this a major change in policy, but since then British officials have not been allowed access to Baradar, and the Americans in the form of the CIA have not had much more luck, either. Baradar has not been extradited to Afghanistan, though the Afghans want him.

What this goes to show is that Pakistan is keen on holding on to its trump card – the most senior Taliban commander captured in more than eight years of war – apparently in the belief that this will help Pakistan play a major role in a peace settlement with the Taliban in Afghanistan, when that eventually comes.

This, and Pakistan’s refusal to move against another Taliban branch, the Haqqani brothers, has left British officials wondering whether Pakistan is worth the hundreds of millions in aid plus over £9m in counter-terrorism assistance that we currently give it. Cameron’s critical comments last week point not just to the row over what role Pakistan plays in any regional peace; the Prime Minister is applying the same “value for money” criteria to British foreign policy that he is applying to the UK’s shrinking domestic budget.