A hostage rescue. A drone strike. Courtesy phone calls. High-level official visits. Pakistan and the United States are trying to re-establish ties, however fledgling, after the Trump administration unveiled its South Asia strategy, which takes a harder line against Pakistan for allegedly harbouring militant groups, and calls for an expanded role for India in Afghanistan — the opposite of Pakistan’s preference for what should unfold across its western border.
The overtures are welcome for those who believe Pakistan should maintain a multipronged foreign policy comprising strong alliances with stronger nations. Conversely, they have been met with cynicism by US sceptics — the American-Canadian couple was conveniently recovered the day before a US delegation arrived in Islamabad; the US drone strike that allegedly killed the chief of Jamaatul Ahrar (JuA) took place days before US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s scheduled visit to Islamabad in what is being seen as a reciprocal and reconciliatory gesture. Both camps can agree that this is not the stuff of a coordinated bilateral relationship with shared strategic objectives; it is the piecemeal politics of placation.
Grand gestures aside, the fundamental challenges of the US-Pakistan relationship persist. The US is frustrated by Pakistan’s dubious counterterrorism credentials. Even while seeking to thaw frosty relations, Washington has called out Pakistan for supporting militant groups. Earlier this month, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff told a congressional hearing that Pakistan’s agencies had links to militant groups; and even while Trump was gloating about improved ties between the two countries, the director of the CIA announced that US citizen Caitlin Campbell and her family had been held hostage by the Haqqani network for five years in Pakistan (and not Afghanistan, as our security forces had indicated).
Fundamental challenges exist for Pak-US relations.
Pakistan, meanwhile, remains concerned about the destabilising effects of US meddling in the region, which could manifest in several ways: growing Indian influence in Afghanistan; an increasingly dysfunctional and hostile government in Kabul; entrenched sanctuaries for anti-Pakistan militant groups such as JuA and the TTP across the Durand Line; and regional designs against CPEC.
As long as these divergent objectives and concerns remain, the US-Pakistan relationship will be stuck in a rut. But we can no longer dismiss this as a foreign policy irritant — the rut damages Pakistan.
Islamabad’s fraught ties with Washington leads to knee-jerk foreign policymaking on other fronts, including the all-eggs-in-one-basket approach of cosying up to China in order to have a reliable counterweight to the US. This approach involves geostrategic and economic concessions, the full implications of which Pakistan has yet to understand. It is also one that will become entrenched during the Trump administration in light of the US president’s truncated flirtation with Xi Jingping, and Tillerson’s public critique of China as a destabilising force and economic predator. As US-China tensions escalate, Pakistan will gradually find itself choosing a side.
Clumsy rapprochements with Washington also undermine Pakistan’s democratic set-up. The relationship with the US is dominated by our military, but the fallout is left to the civilian government to manage. Analysts speculate that the drone strike that apparently killed Omar Khalid Khorasani indicates a resumption in military and intelligence cooperation between Islamabad and Washington. But it’s the government that has to cover the tracks of America’s unpopular drone strike policy. While in the US, our foreign minister responded to the sudden uptick in drone strikes in and around Kurram Agency with hemming and hawing about indeterminate territory and fuzzy borders. Pakistan’s lack of transparency regarding its involvement in and tolerance for US drone strikes has eroded the government’s credibility with the public.
Contortions in US-Pakistan ties also fuel conspiracy theories that stymie Pakistan’s chances of developing a clear narrative against terrorism — those who speak out against militant activity on Pakistani soil are labelled American stooges, and their position is perceived to be sinister rather than in the long-term interests of the country. Meanwhile, militant groups continue to capitalise on anti-Americanism to attract increasingly diverse recruits.
As such, it’s in Pakistan’s interest to refresh the US-Pakistan relationship. Perhaps one way forward is to focus on issues beyond the Afghanistan — and by extension, India — angle. Secretary Tillerson has indicated that he will explore improved economic ties between the US and Pakistan during his visit. Our representatives should try to generate more US support for CPEC, and Pakistan’s economic growth overall. A conversation about regional security concerns couched in the language of economic opportunity may offer one way to break out of the rut.
The writer is a freelance journalist.
Published in Dawn, October 23rd, 2017