Uneasy ties

Published January 1, 2017

WHEN Barack Obama was first elected, Pakistanis had more reasons than most to be optimistic. The Bush years may have restored Pakistan to the status of a key ally, but many had wearied of the costs that relationship incurred.

As the Bush administration claimed it was promoting democracy and human rights in the Muslim world, Pakistanis and other citizens of US-sponsored dictatorships were quick to note the hypocrisy. The tales of torture at Guantanamo Bay, Bagram airbase, and Abu Ghraib hardened their hostility.

Obama, Pakistanis hoped, would be different. He had opposed the Iraq war from its outset — the only member of his cabinet to do so. Like his mother, he had travelled to Pakistan. He lived with Pakistanis, whom he has described as “his closest friends”. He used to cheerfully greet them with the words, “Kya haal hai, seth?”

For Obama, Pakistan was only as important as the threat it represented.

As Obama told this newspaper’s Anwar Iqbal soon after coming to office, his familiarity with Pakistani culture extended to the country’s poets and its food. Not only could he pronounce ‘Pakistan’ properly, he read Faiz, cooked daal and qeema, and had a middle name that was more common among Pakistanis than Americans.

But intimate knowledge of a country, its people, and its culture doesn’t necessarily translate into friendlier policies towards its state. By the time Obama was seeking re-election in 2012, he had become so unpopular that Pakistan was the only country polled where people preferred Mitt Romney.

Within his first year of office, Obama grew frustrated by the lack of progress the two countries were making against militant groups who menaced Afghan territory. He dramatically escalated the use of drones, a policy shift that was emblematic of his ardent embrace of the CIA.

For Obama, Pakistan was only as important as the threat it represented to US interests. He came to office vowing to win the faltering war in Afghanistan but sought quick results. Where the Pakistanis were willing to help, there would be cooperation. Where they didn’t, he was happy to proceed alone.

During the Bush years, Musharraf had carefully cultivated an image of himself as an indispensable bulwark against terrorism, with his grip on power seen as the only thing keeping the country’s nuclear weapons out of the militants’ reach. Bush and Dick Cheney bought the act. Obama didn’t. His own childhood in Indonesia had left him with lasting doubts about Washington’s support for military strongmen. Obama’s Pakistani friends, some of whom were close to the Bhuttos, shared with him their own distaste for Gen Ziaul Haq’s rule.

However much Obama may have welcomed an end to US-backed military rule in Pakistan, he was only reluctantly invested in its return to democracy. The Kerry-Lugar bill, tripling non-military aid, was authored by Joe Biden when he was still a senator. The late Richard Holbrooke was named a special representative to the region at Hillary Clinton’s behest.

Holbrooke soon found himself shut out by Obama’s inner circle, with diplomacy being overridden by security concerns. At the US embassy in Islamabad, ambassador Cameron Munter had explosive confrontations with successive CIA station chiefs, who came to determine how the US saw Pakistan.

Holbrooke had a premonition of this, one that he shared with his senior adviser Vali Nasr: “Watch them [the CIA] ruin this relationship. And when it is ruined, they are going to say, ‘We told you, you can’t work with Pakistan!’ We never learn.”

The CIA felt vindicated when it found and killed Osama bin Laden, and, untroubled by the consequences of antagonising the Pakis­tan Army, Obama turned his attention elsewhere.

Ever since the Arab Spring gave way to chilling violence, Pakistan no longer claims attention as the ‘world’s most dangerous place’. That distinction has fallen to Iraq and Syria, where militants even more dangerous than the ones found in Pakistan have snatched vast swathes of territory and recruited adherents across the West.

For Obama, the troubles of the Muslim world were a distraction from his true foreign policy goals. He tried to stay aloof from Syria while concentrating on a pivot to Asia, foundering on both fronts.

The notable breakthroughs he made in his final years were with Cuba and Iran, ending decades of hostilities and breaking with America’s Cold War past.

Pakistan could become part of that legacy, too. For six decades, US presidents only turned to Pakistan for an uneasy security relationship of convenience with its often-ruling military elite.

Now, with Pakistani democracy settling in and American influence waning, those days may be over. For the foreseeable future, Pakistan will matter to the US as little as a nuclear-armed country bordering China and India possibly can — hardly a priority, but difficult to ignore.

The US president who oversaw that change was the only one who knew Pakistan for decades but never visited while he was in office.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn January 1st, 2017


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