OBITUARIES are never easy to write. But the time may have come to start thinking of putting one together for the present phase of the Pakistan-US relationship.
For months, I have continuously argued in this space and elsewhere that these two countries have no option but to work together; all alternatives look exceptionally bad. The principal reason: the two countries’ respective importance in resolving the Afghanistan conundrum in the immediate future and Washington’s inability to ignore an unstable nuclear power over the long run.
The compulsions have not changed. Both remain desperate to avoid civil war in Afghanistan and thus realise that a breakdown of ties would be disastrous. And the concern about an unstable Pakistan fuelling further terrorism has only grown.
However, while efforts to put things back on track continue, the situation has spiralled out of control. Both sides have lost the ability to quickly overcome crises and get back to business as they did in the past.
The signs are ominous for the near-term future as well. For one, the interpretation of ground realities has hardened considerably on both sides in the wake of recent events.
Washington is utterly convinced that the ISI is not only tolerating but now also training and funding the Haqqani network cadres operating in Afghanistan. This represents a shift from the earlier position where a debate ensued on Pakistan’s precise role but most accepted the need to take a nuanced view of the link. The discourse now is moving to a reductionist argument where the Pakistani state is seen as directly contributing to US casualties in Afghanistan.
Pakistan, on its side, has become increasingly disillusioned with US tactics since the Abbottabad raid. Washington is being seen as an adversary by many even within official ranks.
More and more serious policymakers now embody the street sentiment in terms of characterising Washington as totally insensitive to Pakistan’s concerns. Also, while Pakistan remains desperate to keep a seat on the big table as far as Afghan reconciliation talks are concerned, one finds a growing belief in Islamabad that Washington may not be pursuing the talks’ agenda sincerely.
There are hardly any constructive conversations possible when such deterministic stances inform negotiating positions. Indeed, the communication breakdown between the two sides is rather stark. Official meetings have reportedly been oozing with mistrust and have seen a barrage of allegations coupled with shortened tempers. Recent meetings between visiting US officials and their Pakistani counterparts have gone down uncharacteristically badly as both sides refuse to give in. Specifically, three issues have created a total deadlock: a US apology, drone strikes and Pakistan’s link with the Haqqani network.
A softer form of an apology may or may not come from the US. But we can more or less forget any concessions on drones and the Haqqani network from the US and Pakistan, respectively. And therefore, even if an apology comes, it is only likely to provide temporary respite as these more fundamental issues will land them back in a crisis situation sooner or later.
To make matters worse, the script is already written as far as public positions over the next year are concerned. Elections are approaching in both countries. In the US, I cannot imagine either side of the political aisle sticking its neck out for Pakistan. Most of what will be said about Islamabad during the election season will be from the perspective of Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan; this will further cement negative opinions about Islamabad among the American public.
In Pakistan, the US seems to have become the principal emotive issue and a nationalistic line vis-à-vis Washington is already proving to be politically expedient for political parties. One can expect more of it as elections approach.
In the face of these challenges, states often resort to unconventional means to negotiate their way out of an impasse. Track 1.5 and Track II dialogues are one way of discretely utilising effective communication channels to try and bridge gaps. In the Pakistan-US case, even these have become a casualty of negative perceptions.
There have been some efforts at creating a serious Track II channel to serve as a place for influential, private citizens to meet and act as a conduit between officialdoms on both sides. However, these have been ad hoc and have not received too much support from the powers that be in either capital. They have therefore failed to provide a sustained communication channel in this case.
Equally important, the narratives have gotten so entrenched that even independent experts with reasonable access to officialdoms — such individuals are often housed at influential think tanks or universities in both capitals — are no longer able to play their traditional role of bringing a better understanding of the other’s positions to each party.
As someone in this position, the drift is fairly obvious to me, i.e. if the value of individuals who understand systems and have acceptability on both sides is to explain to each party why the other is behaving in a certain way and what could change behaviours or make them more responsive, this has become a near impossible task.
I find people, officials and private citizens alike, on both sides (more so in Pakistan than the US) more interested in framing these transmitters of information as pandering to the other side’s interests rather than using the information constructively to find points of convergence. As detrimental as it will be for both sides and for the outcome in Afghanistan, it is perhaps time to accept the reality that we will experience continued roadblocks.
At this point, the best one can hope for is to shift focus to the post-2014 phase. Conceivably, with Afghanistan less salient in the bilateral discourse, there may be an opportunity to rethink the Pakistan-US relationship anew. Even for that to happen though, the relationship must not be so completely broken that the two sides can’t but see each other as outright enemies. Let us at least manage this much.
The writer is South Asia adviser at the US Institute of Peace, Washington, D.C.