US Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen ignored Islamabad when he visited Afghanistan over the weekend, in what could be his last trip to the region before he retires in September this year.
This is a rare instance when a top US military commander opted not to make a stopover in Pakistan while visiting neighbouring Afghanistan, a Pakistani military official said.
Relations between the two key allies in the war on terror have remained precarious since a unilateral US midnight raid on Pakistani soil in which al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad on May 2.
Last month, Washington withheld $800 million worth of military assistance to Pakistan in a move that was viewed as punishment for Islamabad’s decision to expel the American military trainers and restrict the movement of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operatives in the country.
In his farewell trip to southern and eastern Afghanistan last weekend, the top US military commander said that the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan was still the world’s most dangerous area — calling it the ‘epicentre of terrorism’.
In an interview with the BBC, he said that, unless they moved against terrorists such as the Afghan Haqqani network, it could affect relations between Washington and Islamabad.
He admitted relations were still very strained in the wake of the Bin Laden raid, which embarrassed the Pakistan military.
But he insisted that the answer was not to sever ties.
(Read: Despite strain, Pak-US not close to split, says Mullen)
Despite his strong statement, Pakistan military officials believe Mullen was amongst the few US officials who understood Pakistan’s position ‘better’ than other US high officials.
He was considered to have a ‘soft’ approach towards Pakistan and had been the key US interlocutor with the Pakistan military.
Mullen accompanied US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in a crucial visit to Pakistan on May 27 to discuss the fallout of the Abbottabad raid.
He was also believed to have enjoyed ‘good relations’ with Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.
“Given his [Mullen] affinity with the top Pakistani leadership, it was surprising he did not visit,” said the official.
The Inter-Service Public Relations (ISPR) tried to down play the development.
“He had no plans to visit Pakistan,” said an ISPR official.
But there were indications that the top US military commander was planning to stop in Pakistan in a bid to iron out differences between the two countries.
Some officials linked the development with the ongoing tensions between the two countries.
“It is obvious that the relations between the two countries are not ideal,” said another official.
“The Americans are upset over certain steps we have taken in recent weeks and Mullen’s decision to ignore Pakistan is a sign of tensions between the two states,” he added.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 4th, 2011.