WITH national elections looming, Pakistan watchers everywhere ponder the possible outcomes: A Nawaz Sharif-led coalition with Imran Khan? Another five years of President Zardari? A PTI landslide? The emergence of religious parties? Another hodge-podge coalition with a hung parliament?
Those of us in Washington watch with especially pointed curiosity — what will the elections’ outcome mean for the United States? Surely some in Pakistan have the same question. A healthy debate on the future of relations is a good thing, especially given recent efforts by both countries to get things back on track.
However, analysts on either side of the divide are not even in a position to answer those questions because both sides are trapped in a paradigm that views the relationship in stark black and white terms.
Consider the difficulty pundits have in their view of Imran Khan. He is currently the most popular politician in Pakistan. Khan’s anti-corruption and anti-establishment agenda appeals to urban middle-class youth yearning for change in a political system dominated by family dynasties and landed gentry.
Unsurprisingly, his criticism of the United States, dismissive attitude towards women’s rights and sympathy for the Taliban do not win confidence in Washington. Khan’s playboy past, his Jewish ex-wife, and history of frequenting London nightclubs add to the paradox. Only one question matters: is Imran Khan anti-American?
Pakistan repays the favour by painting American experts, policymakers, and journalists who cover Pakistan in equally simplistic terms. There are the ‘friends of Pakistan’ who always make positive statements, sometimes at the risk of sounding incredulous.
Then there are those that write about Pakistan’s jihadist problem, who are (of course) anti-Pakistan. Some are hand-in-glove with the US government. And members of the diaspora must be pro-Pakistan because of their heritage, right?
As someone who writes regularly about Pakistan and US national security for a western audience, I often struggle with this personally. I understand the need to explain Pakistan’s challenges in a more balanced way.
For example, I regularly encounter — and counter — the canard that Pakistan is the world’s most dangerous place. At the same time, I must be honest about Pakistan’s serious security problem and the government’s role in managing it.
Ignoring these facts hurts Pakistan by ceding political space to militant groups who threaten the country’s internal stability. More importantly, it damages the ability of analysts to act as honest brokers and credible voices.
There is very little depth or nuance left to the way the United States and Pakistan view one another. Instead, it is easier to portray individuals and institutions in extremes because the issues at play are so challenging.
I believe that a defining moment in creating this dynamic in which caricatures prevail was the day after the Sept 11 attacks.
The infamous meeting in Washington between US deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage and Pakistan’s intelligence chief Mahmoud Ahmed set the tone for how the two countries would view one another for the next 10 years.
Armitage presented Ahmed with a choice: you’re either with us or against us. Pakistan could support the Afghan Taliban or it could support the US. Armitage described the choice as “black and white, with no grey”.
The trauma of Sept 11 and American fears of another major attack on US soil allowed this type of binary thinking to take hold within the US government. But it could be the more pragmatic explanation that Pakistan was simply in the way.
Given its historical ties to the Afghan Taliban, the United States had to either separate Pakistan from the Taliban or deal with it in kind. The fact that defining the foreign policy in such minimalist terms could be ultimately damaging did not matter to the neoconservative thinkers in the Bush administration.
In the short term, this simplification made the relationship easier. Armitage’s ultimatum did not leave then president Pervez Musharraf with a real choice to make.
Defying the United States and actively supporting the Taliban as it sheltered Al Qaeda would have been internationally devastating for Pakistan. Yet by offering this blanket cooperation, Musharraf came to be perceived in both Pakistan and the United States as pro-American.
This obviously helped him in Washington. When in 2010 Musharraf began to consider a return to politics in Pakistan, he initially sparked the interest of some in the US political establishment who saw benefit in supporting him. But it soon became clear to Washington that what seemed to be a positive relationship with the United States was a political liability in Pakistan.
The presumption that certain viewpoints translate either into clear-cut policy gains or disadvantages for Pakistan or the United States no longer holds. Things are just not that simple anymore.
As the 2014 draw-down scheduled for Afghanistan nears, the two countries must find common ground. Pakistan’s own stability will be determined by the transition in Afghanistan, and the United States still needs Pakistan’s support to conduct an orderly withdrawal.
For that reason alone, I have no doubt that the United States will work with whoever is elected in Pakistan. For the very same reason, any future government in Pakistan will not be in a position to cut off ties to the world’s superpower.
The writer is an analyst at the Eurasia Group and a senior South Asia fellow at the New America Foundation. She served as director for Pakistan and Afghanistan on the White House National Security Council from 2010 to 2011.