Policy dilemmas

June 14, 2016


The writer is a former ambassador teaching at Georgetown and Johns Hopkins University, US.
The writer is a former ambassador teaching at Georgetown and Johns Hopkins University, US.

TIES between the US and Pakistan have been passing through testing times. First the F-16s dispute, and then the drone strike that killed Mullah Mansour, followed by implied threats of more such strikes by President Obama. Is the relationship headed for another of the now-familiar downturns?

Mark Twain once said the history does not repeat; it rhymes. The fact is this F16s dispute is not the re-enactment of the one in the ’90s, and the drone strike may not be what it looks like on the surface. Nor does the growing American romance with India translate into abandonment of Pakistan. These are two very different relationships now. The reports of the demise of the US-Pakistan relations are thus ‘vastly exaggerated’. The US is not walking away.

When the US walked away the last time it walked away from the region not just from Pakistan. This time it is heavily invested in the region. As US Special Representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Olson said in a congressional testimony in April: “Pakistan is strategically vital, due to its role in issues that matter to us, as well as its location at the crossroads of Afghanistan, India, China and Iran. American national interests require that we stay engaged as Pakistan charts its long-term future.”

Pakistan has to deal with more than two Americas.

But the question is what are ‘American national interests’? And what would be the best policies to pursue them. Washington is not quite clear about it. There may be two Pakistans that America has to contend with but Pakistan has to deal with more than two Americas. Given the nature of the post 9/11 challenges, foreign policy has become military dominated and ever more politicised. There are multiple stakeholders and competing priorities and interests causing a serious fragmentation of the policy process. Over this welter of confusion presides a White House whose heart beats to the rhythms of electoral cycle and the lure of legacy. And that affects policy towards Pakistan.

Pakistan radiates many potential threats that cause legitimate security concerns to the American public affecting public opinion and thus politics. Then the Afghanistan war has not been going well for which Pakistan is getting exaggerated but understandable blame. All this has made the White House and congressional perceptions of Pakistan very political.

Politics and US national interests are thus badly out of alignment for Pakistan. Even the national interests of the two countries are not fully in sync as some of the interests of Pakistan clash with American objectives in Afghanistan on the one hand and US-India relations on the other. Not only that, their policies on shared interests sometimes differ.

But if you look at the larger context in which US-Pakistan relations will likely operate ie the geostrategic landscape, the regional environment, and the domestic dynamics within Pakistan, the picture changes. We are talking here of the lengthening strategic shadow of China and the US pivot to Asia, the rise of India’s power and ambitions, Afghanistan’s elusive search for peace and stability, and Pakistan’s own struggle against terrorism and extremism, and efforts at stabilisation of the economy and strengthening of democracy.

Pakistan will be in the eye of a veritable geostrategic storm as it faces on one side prospects of failure on Afghanistan, and on the other continued pressures from an assertive and dominant India while it copes with internal challenges. And this has implications for the US.

Pakistan has an important role in facilitating or complicating the advancement of US interests in the future. As Mr Olson had said in the same testimony “Pakistan is critical to a negotiated settlement to the conflict in Afghanis­tan; strategic stability in the subcontinent; coun­­tering violent extremism; and defeat­­ing terrorists that threaten the US and the region”.

The administration thus wishes to remain engaged with Pakistan but at a level politically sustainable. Pakistan must not be ignored yet cannot be given a free pass. It is legacy time for Obama and that means Afghanistan has become the single focus of ties with Pakistan. On Afghanistan, Obama cannot leave behind a legacy of inaction and having presided over its failure, more so as the US election approaches. There is no good solution but just to leave behind the present number of troops and expand their role. And be tough on Pakistan and the Taliban.

But the trouble is Pakistan’s Taliban policy remains muddled. And its stance of neither being able to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table nor acting against them has reached a dead end. Both countries face serious policy dilemmas as they address challenges neither can handle alone. And neither has good options except that relations must go on.

The writer is a former ambassador teaching at Georgetown and Johns Hopkins University, US.

Published in Dawn, June 14th, 2016