WE finally have something positive to report on the Pakistan-US front. The US apology — or regret, depending on how we wish to see it — is quite a development in itself.
It had been clear for some time in Washington that a straightforward apology that spared any hedging jargon was off the cards.
But for many, including me, the sense was that even what Pakistan has now gotten was not about to come.
In fact, there was such an ‘anti-apology’ vibe in Washington that even when one heard something might be afoot three or so days before the statement, it was difficult not to be dismissive. For the past month or so, I had repeatedly got the sense that while privately some who mattered in Washington believed that an apology should come, the official decision was a clear no.
What ultimately came is perhaps the only formulation that could have worked for both sides. It is suitably ‘diplomatic’; there is just enough for both to claim that the other blinked while suggesting that the greater national interest has been served (which I think is actually the case) by moving beyond the deadlock. So kudos to whoever pulled this off.
As for those in Pakistan who are bent upon endlessly debating on what the intent of the jargon in the US ‘apology’ was and on protesting the reopening of the supply routes, we can safely ignore them. The bottom line is that neither Pakistan nor the US can afford ruptured ties; holding out endlessly would have pushed them too close to the red line.
Also, ultimately, it was the Pakistani military that was asking for something to satisfy its rank and file and it obviously signed off on the wording of the US statement. And as for the plea that the parliamentary resolution has been undermined, the protests would have only carried weight if the parties sitting in parliament were at the forefront.
So much on what happened. As we move ahead, it will be important for both sides to learn the right lessons from the past seven months. For Pakistan, the lesson can’t be one of invincibility — that we can play hardball and our importance in Afghanistan will force others to buckle sooner or later. Islamabad ended up testing Nato’s patience way beyond it should have and while its criticality was ultimately acknowledged, even opening up space for global powers to find alternatives and seek to leave Pakistan out should have troubled Islamabad’s policymakers. Nato’s patience levels for Islamabad are likely to be much lower in any repeat episode.
As for the US, the take-home message should be the overriding importance of the Pakistani street sentiment vis-à-vis the US.
The lesson is not that a mere face-saver is sufficient to get Pakistan to do what is demanded but that it will be nearly impossible for a weak Pakistani government and increasingly maligned military to defy public opinion again. While the Pakistani state has done much to allow anti-Americanism to penetrate society in the first place, it does not have leverage to pull it back. The tail has been wagging the dog for some time now.
And now to the most important: the strategic aspect of the relationship. Here, a cautionary note is in order for anyone who sees the current breakthrough as cause for too much celebration.
All that has happened — as difficult as it was to attain — is that we are back to where the relationship was before the Salala incident. That in itself was a pretty bad place to be, with both sides having coming off a series of crises and engaged in multiple rounds of public mudslinging.
To be sure, the impasse over the apology and supply routes was a tactical one that overshadowed the make-or-break irritants in the relationship. For these far more important strategic issues, the last seven months have been a net negative: the respective positions in Islamabad and Washington have only hardened.
Problem number one is Afghanistan.
Bluntly put, the perception in Washington is that Pakistan is the number one spoiler in Afghanistan; that the Haqqani network actually is the veritable arm of the ISI and that ISI is supporting and funding the network; that the intelligence agency wants to use the Taliban to retain influence in Afghanistan post-2014; that it has thus far been an impediment in the Afghan reconciliation process as it has kept a lid on Taliban involvement in talks; that it is Fata, not Afghanistan, that poses the real threat to the US, and that Pakistan wants to continue treating Afghanistan as its — and only its — backyard and nothing more.
In Pakistan, the corridors of power believe that the US is entirely insensitive to Pakistani concerns in Afghanistan; that the US is backing India’s growing presence in Afghanistan notwithstanding Pakistani worries; that US is not sincere in reconciliation talks with the Taliban and is only seeking to break the movement from within; that the US is (deliberately) not doing as much to prevent cross-border attacks from TTP in Afghanistan’s east into Pakistan as it can; that US’s post-2014 presence in Afghanistan is primarily to keep counterterrorism options open against Pakistan; that the US intelligence network has penetrated deeply in Pakistan; and that if the US could, it would deprive Pakistan of its nuclear weapons.
The most sanguine voices would point out that a number of these perceptions are exaggerated or even simply incorrect. And yet, it hardly matters; the fact is that the mistrust on both sides is so deep that nothing short of hard evidence will cause the other side to change their view.
These are the issues that Pakistan and the US have to thrash out in a candid and sincere manner. The time for sidetracking issues, talking in riddles, empty promises and one hoping that the other would come around to its position for one reason or another is gone. We are truly in the endgame and both sides will have to lay out their cards and be upfront about the rationale for their strategies and what it would take to change them.
Failing this, we should be prepared for more crises, more mudslinging, more deadlocks — and perhaps even a failure in Afghanistan.
The writer is South Asia adviser at the US Institute of Peace, Washington, D.C.