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The see-saw of Pak-US relations!

28 March, 2011

By Khalid Iqbal


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Interstate relations with America are akin to living on a river bank that changes its course every four years, leaving the other party either in flood or drought. However, in case of Pakistan these relations function on day-to-day basis with each side issuing ‘to-do lists’ frequently. That too with an urgency call of ‘should have been done yesterday’. Nevertheless, stresses caused by this sort of perpetual ‘breathing down the neck’ approach causes frequent ruptures.

The Pak-US relationship has generally remained transactional and marred by mistrust. This is indeed a strategic dysfunction that is undercutting the durability and maturity of these relations. America is quick to bail out Pakistan when in trouble, be they natural disasters or manmade calamities, but then suddenly it decides to walk a couple of steps back rather crudely, and loses the genuinely earned public goodwill. Soon, the cycle restarts!

The Raymond Davis affair has, yet once again, brought the prospect of fragility in this relationship and the pitfalls of not being on the same page at all levels. According to the details of the understanding reached between the two sides, after the spy’s release, the US will pull out as many as 331 Americans of Davis type, involved in espionage and subversive activities under diplomatic cover. Thus, it reinforces the perception that the US runs covert operations within Pakistan.

However, there were certainly better ways to resolve the issue in a win-win setting. But the indecent haste has left a bad taste in the mouth of the stakeholders. Suspension and slowing down of the financial aid only hardened the popular anti-American sentiment cutting across the political divide.

Likewise, washing of dirty linen with a fanfare corrodes the perspective in the US as well; questions are asked about the futility of aid to a country whose people dislike America. Though the mainstream political parties stay away from the anti-American public demonstrations, yet the pitch of noise generated in Pakistan on the eve of every such row is baffling to the American public. Hence, the political space in the US for supporting a strategic relationship with Pakistan has shrunk incrementally.

Furthermore, there is a widespread perception in America that Pakistan is supportive of the Afghan Taliban factions, which attack the foreign forces in Afghanistan; it takes on only those Taliban that attack Pakistan, and the Afghan Taliban elements operate from FATA against the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan. America considers that the drone strikes against targets in FATA legitimate use of force, since they are with the consent of the Pakistani leadership. The US is critical of governance and law enforcement inadequacies in Pakistan and frequently counsels it to augment revenue generation capacity and broaden the tax net. It also does not believe the Pakistani perception of a threat from India to its security.

Periodically, the US media and think tanks churn out fearsome speculations about ‘Pakistan’s nukes’ not being secure enough; they also portray the span and growth rate of the Pakistani nuclear programme that is much larger than life size. Over projection of indicators to hint at rapid radicalisation of the society and the meltdown of its economy are also a favourite pastime of US intellectuals.

In Pakistan, on the other hand, the belief runs: Washington does not trust Pakistan and operates unilaterally in Afghanistan; its uses drones to hit only those factions of Taliban who operate in Afghanistan and spares those who carry out terrorist activities in Pakistan; covert American operations are a source of perpetual disturbance in Pakistan; the US is encouraging separatist elements in Balochistan; and the US strategy in Afghanistan is essentially beyond the stated objectives and the intent is to stay in Afghanistan on a permanent basis, though with diluted military presence. Another point of worry is USA’s tolerance of strategic space for India in Afghanistan and turning its eyes away from clandestine Indian activities to destabilise Pakistan.

Despite Washington’s claim to the contrary, professional assessments indicate that Afghanistan’s military capacity will remain far below the minimum sufficiency level and southern Afghanistan and FATA would continue to be in turmoil for an indefinite period of time with dire implications for Pakistan.

Moreover, there is a feeling that the cost paid by the Pakistanis for siding with the US in the war on terror has never been fully appreciated. That the pressures on Pakistan and suspicions about its policies are unfair and the real target is our nuclear installations.

In all probability, it does not suit the US to push Pakistan towards radicalisation, destabilisation or balkanisation. America is aware that in the wake of severe criticism on the issues of nuclear safety and security, Pakistan has strengthened the custodial control over its nuclear assets. Therefore, the neutralisation of Pakistani nuclear assets, either by taking over or taking out, may no longer be a viable option.

The recent drone attack with an unusually high death toll of over 40 drew a rare condemnation both from the civilian and military leadership. Missiles were fired when a peaceful gathering of tribal elders was in progress in North Waziristan. More so, the attack came just a day after Davis’ release. Indeed, it was an arrogant US response; it was another incident of the use of disproportionate force, while jumping the gun on faulty intelligence.

US Ambassador Munter was summoned to the Foreign Office and a strong protest was lodged. He was categorically conveyed that “it was evident that the fundamentals of our relations need to be revisited…Pakistan should not be taken for granted, nor treated as a client state,” the Foreign Office said. If the America’s action was harsh, Pakistan’s reaction has also been interpreted as equally worrying for the Pak-US relations. But, perhaps, the attitude tried to neutralise the embarrassment of the national leaderships, caused by the release of Raymond Davis; it could not afford to look weak twice in succession.

There has been a longstanding demand from the people of Pakistan to revisit the relationship with the US, as it is merely based on unilateral Pakistani cooperation in Afghan war, whereas Washington spares no opportunity to arm-twist and squeeze the country. Hence, it is time to tell the US that “you cannot be our friend and foe at the same time.”

However, the overall relations between the US and Pakistan are rather better than the apparent facade. Islamabad is keen to talk about the need for stability in Afghanistan, while Washington has also agreed with the former’s point of view for a political settlement in Afghanistan by holding direct talks with the Taliban. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during a speech to the Asia Society last month, reinterpreted the longstanding preconditions for talks: “That the insurgents lay down their arms, accept the Afghan Constitution and separate from Al-Qaeda.” She described them as “necessary outcomes”. This shift was suggested to President Obama by General Kayani during his last year’s visit to America.

The US-Pakistan relations have endured many storms in the past and have survived after every dip. Both sides need each other and they know it. The Raymond Davis affair offers an opportunity to give this relationship a lasting context, concrete substance and sustainable direction. America needs to mix pragmatism to its approach of pure realism; Pakistan needs to condition it oriental style, emotional approach by adding a pinch of realism.

 

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