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Learning from Mullen’s message

WE owe a sincere debt of gratitude to Adm Michael Mullen for speaking the truth about Pakistan's relations with the US. From the statements that the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff made in Pakistan, it has become official that not all is well at the core of the bilateral relationship.

At least now we don't have to read leaked stories in the American press and spend long hours deciphering their meaning to find out that the Barack Obama administration sees parts of Pakistan's counter-terrorism strategy as a central policy challenge.

Moreover, thanks to Adm Mullen's in-your-face assessment, we also don't have to figure out whether Washington's policymakers weigh Pakistan as an asset or a liability in their effort to showcase the war in Afghanistan as a success for the increasingly weary American taxpayer.

When even a seemingly good cop like Adm Mullen, the highest ranking military official, begins to use the language of the bad cops in the Pentagon and the CIA in justifying the policy of drone attacks, it is a clear signal: Pakistan and the US stand in opposite corners of the arena facing each other rather than having common strategic objectives.

The divergence part of the story of Pakistan-US interests has always been the proverbial elephant in the room that both Washington and Islamabad ignored in their quest for a lasting strategic alliance. But, on balance, Islamabad has been in denial more than Washington. Alice in Wonderland

In the US even in the best of times the most vocal voices of support for Pakistan have been sceptical about the extent of cooperation from their ally in return for aid and support. On the contrary, here in Pakistan the view of ties with the US has been akin to the tale of .

Those who doubt this should recall the oozing euphoria of the PPP government over the passage of the Kerry Lugar Berman bill. The aid bill promised $1.5bn a year with strict preconditions and under one of the most intrusive scrutiny regimes for disbursement that any bureaucracy could devise. This was projected as a heavenly gift from a benevolent friend.

The 'aha' sentiment in government circles was so intense that the limitations and pitfalls of this friendship were completely overlooked. No one bothered to raise the flag on the central point of the promised aid, that this was just a promise of advance payment for Pakistan's total endorsement of the US policy in Afghanistan, leaving no room for Pakistan to make its own policy choices in the great game being played right under its soft underbelly.

Cementing this fake imagery of a 'total alignment of interests' has been the US public diplomacy initiative in Pakistan. The sole purpose of this heavily funded plan — which includes among one hundred other things buying propaganda airtime on different media outlets — is to promote bilateral bonhomie.

The elaborate attempt to implement this plan has come at the cost of a more level-headed analysis of the causes of friction both sides had to deal with. By sweeping pressure points in Pakistan's relations with the US under the carpet, the PR campaign killed the space for rational discourse on these relations, besides inflating expectations on both sides about the great things the two countries could accomplish together.

However, the most misleading image of 'sharing, caring and togetherness' has come from the military high command's primarily secret but flourishing interaction with US counterparts. The mantra of being allies in the war against terror has been stretched to cover harsh facts, now the predominant theme of discussion between the two sides.

While there is no denying the fact that staying engaged with a superpower breathing down hard on its borders is a compulsion for a small state, to claim to have built a strategic alliance on the basis of this compulsion is self-deception.

Pakistan's military leadership has been wrongly thinking that it can make Washington change its policy course by using the logic that 'good friends' are always open. Adm Mullen's unbending insistence on the ISI severing links with the Haqqani network and the continuation of drone attacks is the strongest rebuttal of this assumption.

It is evident that the US will not back off from its demand list and will use every means at its disposal to make headway in the direction President Barack Obama has decided. The idea of giving Pakistan drone technology or more military aid in cash is not a sign of friendship. It is part of the implementation mechanism of the strategy that leaves no room for Pakistan other than to comply.

It would have served Pakistan's interests better if the dos and don'ts of the engagement with the US had been worked out with clarity and in detail rather than being drawn into an elaborate but futile idea of a strategic alliance.

Adm Mullen's frank talk has afforded Pakistan an opportunity to dispassionately rethink its relations with Washington. He has created the space for Pakistan to move away from the bombast of the two being 'friends forever', and to start to review the idea of strategic relations to find out what they are actually worth.

The conclusion that can be drawn from Adm Mullen's musings is that Washington sees Islamabad neither as a reliable friend, nor as a mortal enemy. Pakistan's policymakers are well advised to start a policy review from this downgraded but realistic status. The writer is a senior journalist at DawnNews.

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