WITH no full-time ambassador in DC for many months to try and smooth concerns about Pakistan in the US Congress, Capitol Hill has turned increasingly belligerent on Pakistan. But not having a senior-level presence on the ground to make Pakistani case is only one half of the story: even if there had been an ambassador during the second half of the year to sell Pakistan’s case, he or she would likely have met few takers.
US Special Envoy James Dobbins’ appearance before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Dec 11 epitomised the problem. Dobbins wanted to focus on a new and positive evolution in the White House’s approach in the broader region this year: improving relations between India and Pakistan.
The United States, Dobbins said, wanted to leave behind a secure and stable Afghanistan when it withdraws its forces from there in 2014 but this was not possible as long as India and Pakistan continued to fight for influence in Kabul.
Mr Dobbins also said the Pakistani prime minister was the right person to reduce tensions with India and had “a fair chance of being able to do so”.
But it became obvious during the hearing that it was not easy to sell Pakistan on Capitol Hill.
Congressman Ed Royce, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called Pakistan “a double-dealer”, who was “paying lip service to cooperation with the US” while “simultaneously undermining our primary objective of bringing Afghanistan under the control of a democratically elected government”.
Congressman Ami Bera, a California Democrat of Indian origin, highlighted Indian concern that once the US withdrew from Afghanistan, “hardened, trained jihadi fighters will start shifting over to the Indian-Pakistan border”.
And these anti-Pakistan feelings reflected in a bill Congress passed last week, which calls for stopping reimbursements to Pakistan if ground supply routes to Afghanistan are interrupted.
The bill seeks a certification from the US defence secretary that Pakistan is taking demonstrable actions against Al Qaeda and other militant groups active along the Pak-Afghan border.
The development comes on the heels of US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel’s recent visit to Pakistan during which he was reported to have warned of the mood in the US Congress souring on Pakistan.
The bill also requires Pakistan to disrupt cross-border attacks against US, coalition and Afghan security forces in Afghanistan, counter the threat of IEDs and not to persecute religious and ethnic minorities.
The sour mood in Congress though contrasted with an improved year for overall Pak-US relations. Arguably, the bilateral relationship underwent a much-needed positive transition: from an all-encompassing love-knot to an issue based friendship which acknowledges that the two sides’ interests do not always coincide.
This obviously is degradation from the days of close a partnership that followed the 2001 terrorist attacks and the US invasion of Afghanistan. But viewed from another angle, it looks like a major improvement.
“An issue-based relationship required both sides to concede that their interests do not always coincide,” Ms Rehman said.
And US President Barack Obama did exactly that when after a meeting with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at the White House on Oct 23, he mentioned “incidents of terrorism inside of Pakistan’s borders and the degree to which these activities may be exported to other countries”.
This, he said, was “a source of tension between our two countries” and urged the Pakistani leader to work with him to make counter-terrorism cooperation “a source of strength for us”.
Mr Sharif said he “also brought up the issue of drones in our meeting, emphasising the need for an end to such strikes”.
But Congress does not appear to have gotten the memo from the White House on Pakistan. Where the White House appeared willing to patch up and focus on the doables, Congress dug in its heels and stuck to the old ‘do more’ mantra.