MEMBERS of Congress have embarrassed themselves, this time by a joint subcommittee hearing on whether Pakistan is a friend or foe. Framing a congressional hearing in this binary way reflects the sad state of political discourse on Capitol Hill, where complex issues are boiled down to ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers. Members of Congress dress themselves in righteous indignation and confuse leadership with generating headlines.
The United States, like Pakistan, is prisoner to a repetitive news cycle loop filled with hot air, loose talk and the constant drip of poisonous insinuation. The demise of civic culture continues apace. Echo chambers are not conducive to learning. Capitol Hill has devolved into competing echo chambers.
Without learning, we repeat mistakes. This is true on a personal level and on a national level. Some in the US repeat the mistake of insisting that other countries are implacable enemies, disregarding common interests. Taking refuge in this default position has cost America dearly. To repeat it again with Pakistan would be an act of pure folly. India reliably repeats its painful mistakes in Indian Kashmir. Pakistan has its own costly repetitive behaviours.
The US has been insensitive in its dealings with Pakistan.
Pakistan’s national security interests are defined mostly by men in uniform who jealously defend this prerogative from civilian prime ministers and the foreign ministry. Pakistan’s prime minister — a man not known for his attention to detail and zealous work habits — has made these circumstances worse by not having a foreign minister.
Some within Pakistan argue for a greater sense of urgency and energy on the civilian side to reverse the drift in Pakistan’s relations with the US and its neighbours. More energy would be welcome, but it will come to naught unless Pakistan sheds talking points that have long ago lost their persuasiveness. The ‘trust deficit’ argument has no weight when the reasons for the deficit are papered over. The promise that violent extremist groups that have ruined Pakistan’s reputation will be tackled in due course has worn thin because it has been repeated for so long.
The US has been heavy-handed and insensitive in its dealings with Pakistan. It’s easy for the US embassy to lose touch when it operates behind walls and razor wire. Members of Congress have short memories. They forget that Pakistan played a central role in the US diplomatic opening to China and in expelling Soviet troops from Afghanistan.
Bilateral ties will always be complicated. The US and Pakistan are on the same side of some issues but not others. Pakistan would like a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan, but it wants to retain influence there. Pakistan is concerned about violent extremist groups that carry out explosions in India, but not enough to clamp down on them. These straddles have left Pakistan on a tightrope without the means to engineer outcomes in Afghanistan or to ramp up economic growth, which depends on normal ties with neighbours.
Washington’s mix of carrots and sticks hasn’t helped Pakistan down from its tightrope, and now US incentives are diminishing. If Pakistan changes course, more help will come, but the relationship is no longer transactional. Pakistan will do what it thinks it must.
Perceptions of Pakistan are now deeply grooved. They won’t change unless Islamabad is able to take steps that clarify new thinking towards India and Afghanistan. Mikhail Gorbachev called this strategy one of destroying the ‘enemy image’. Gorbachev destroyed the Soviet Union’s enemy image in the US, but the Soviet economy was also destroyed because it was incapable of reform. Pakistan can change its enemy image and grow its economy by improving ties with neighbours. In doing so, Pakistan can maintain decent relations with the United States as it improves ties with China. Islamabad achieved this significant feat in the past; it can do so again.
On Capitol Hill, it would be helpful if serious legislators convened serious hearings on how best to stabilise and improve US-Pakistan relations. The easy way for legislators to weigh in is to get on soapboxes — an old American colloquialism recalling a time when men with megaphones gained elevation on street corners. Television is the new soapbox. Denunciations make cheap headlines while making hard problems worse. Congressional hearings where learning takes place have become rare on Capitol Hill. Pakistan deserves better treatment, but the same policies will produce the same results.
US-Pakistan relations are worth salvaging. Both countries have been through hard times together, and have accomplished much together. Pakistan has a long list of grievances towards the US. The US has a long list of grievances towards Pakistan. Grievances don’t solve problems; they make problems worse.
This relationship can no longer rest on the resupply of US troops in Afghanistan, or on Pakistan’s role as a selective bulwark against violent extremist groups. A new relationship has to be forged; otherwise, enemy images will only harden.
The writer is the co-founder of the Stimson Centre.
Published in Dawn, July 25th, 2016