MILLIONS of words have been written to explain why Pakistan-US relations have alternated between strategic collusion that occasionally became an important determinant of regional history and periods in which the United States punished Pakistan with lasting damage.
Analysts deconstructing the refusal of both sides to let go of an often troubled relationship have written book-length treatises on the dynamics of bilateral negotiations that continue in good times and bad times.
One of the most engaging recent studies of the subject is the book How Pakistan Negotiates with the United States by two veterans of American diplomacy in South Asia, Teresita Schaffer and Howard Schaffer, notable for focus on factors such as Pakistan’s ideological preoccupations, geopolitics and power structure.
Impressive as the existing canon is, there is need for a more intensive and impartial study of the fast-changing context of Pakistan-US relations and of the negotiations undertaken to steer it through new vulnerabilities.
Several factors make the period since the 1990s particularly distinctive. First, the Indian shift to market economy created an opening for Washington that had eluded it for a long time.
Second, the US skilfully differentiated between Pakistan and India in the negotiations that followed the subcontinental nuclear tests of 1998; eventually, this distinction led to the unabashedly discriminatory Indo-US civil nuclear deal.
Third, Pakistan’s Kargil misadventure accelerated what Stimson Centre’s Michael Krepon calls the ‘the big shift’ towards a new strategic partnership between Washington and New Delhi.
Fourth, as if his monumental folly in Kargil had not caused enough damage, Gen Musharraf signed on to the post-9/11 American strategic plans in the region with very hazy terms of engagement. Washington read Musharraf’s decision as a pledge of total compliance that it was to enforce later with coercive diplomacy, large intelligence presence and drone attacks.
Fifth, the decade-long war in Afghanistan got extended to Pakistan imposing unacceptable losses.
Sixth, Pakistan’s predicament created a divergence of objectives about the endgame in Afghanistan.
Seventh, as its Afghan project failed inexorably, Washington tried to impose upon the Pakistan Army tasks that were manifestly inconsistent with Pakistan’s national interest and which could not be undertaken with any hope of success.
Quintessentially, the crisis of relations that Pakistan and the United States are now trying to resolve with a higher sense of realism has three principal dimensions.
One, the United States, still the greatest military power in human history, is bruised by the lack of success in Iraq and Afghanistan — in the latter case, notwithstanding Barack Obama’s military surge.
Two, Pakistan has yet to win the war against religious militancy which is destructive for Pakistan and is seen by Washington as a major hurdle in implementing its regional policy; the last six-monthly White House report on Afghanistan and Pakistan to Congress noted wryly that “[As] such, there remains no clear path towards defeating the insurgency in Pakistan”.
Three, though on the mend, India-Pakistan discord has not ceased to be a potential threat to the pan-Asia US strategic design which would now have a new China-oriented centre of gravity in the Pacific basin.
Paradoxically, it is not just Pakistan that is trying to craft a viable foreign and security policy in stressed conditions; the US has to contend with unprecedented diffusion of political and economic power across the globe that took place while it was engrossed in its trillion-dollar wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Its impatience with Pakistan reflects the kind of irritability that imperial systems have been historically prone to in dealing with such transitions. It has intensified interference in Pakistan’s domestic politics though, ironically, it has often weakened client Pakistani regimes by subjecting them to imprudent coercion.
The US agenda included transformation of Pakistan’s armed forces and their mission. Relations with Pakistan would not have plunged so low if Washington had not embarked upon a policy to tame Pakistan’s military establishment. The coercive approach ran into a major crisis with Nato’s fateful air attack on the Pakistani border post of Salala. The Pakistan Army has since demonstrated that it can leverage its strength better than the hapless civilians devoid of popular support.
Given the present realities, the iron law of necessity demands that Pakistan and the US successfully negotiate the parameters of their future relations. In Pakistan, the project is endangered by two sets of people: a powerful lobby in the political class, diplomacy, economic ministries and the media that yearns to get back to a golden past that never existed and agitational groups that thrive on pathological anti-Americanism. In Washington, the threat comes from segments of the establishment that are still not willing to factor into policy Pakistan’s strategic concerns and the aspirations of its people to achieve a semblance of what the political scientists fashionably call ‘sovereign equality’.
Pakistan is no different from the other 190 states or so to seek stable and profitable relations with the US. Unfortunately for it, the American policy towards the region in which it is situated has been subject to major readjustments and Pakistan has not been able to cope with the contingent shocks.
Now that its parliament has written a decent report, Prime Minister Gilani has met President Barack Obama and Gen Kayani has held long deliberations with Centcom’s leader Gen James Mattis and Isaf commander Gen John Allen, the stage is set to re-negotiate a more sustainable relationship. What can and cannot be done over the next several years can be discerned more clearly.
Pakistani negotiators should harbour no illusion that they can substantially alter American strategic priorities. But Washington needs Pakistan’s assistance till 2014 and beyond in sorting out the mess in Afghanistan; Islamabad should provide it ungrudgingly to the extent it remains compatible with its own security.
Considering that it will remain an essentially transactional relationship, the quid pro quo sought by Pakistan should be a significant American contribution to the rehabilitation of its economy; with energy, market access, education and training providing the principal themes of future cooperation.
The writer is a former foreign secretary.