AMERICAN Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s short visit to Pakistan, sandwiched between trips to Afghanistan and India, has underlined the difficulties in the Pakistan-US relationship in the Trump era.
Echoing US President Donald Trump, Mr Tillerson offered a tough message — a familiar do-more-against-militancy demand — but also held out the possibility of cooperation with Pakistan.
What is difficult to gauge is how far the US is willing to go on both sides of the cooperate-or-else message: how much pressure is the US willing to exert on Pakistan and what kind of beneficial cooperation is the US willing to offer Pakistan?
In addition to the vexing inconsistency of the Trump administration, there is often a dearth of detail and specifics in the policy and strategy domains that can leave allies frustrated.
Perhaps US officials have been specific in their private conversations with Pakistani officials, but a do-more mantra without a road map to closer, more durable ties with the US is akin to bullying by a superpower. Bilateral ties cannot and will not be helped if mindless hectoring by the US continues.
That Mr Tillerson has chosen to use even stronger language in Afghanistan and India when referring to Pakistan is sure to make Pakistan’s hackles rise.
There is no quicker formula to undermining relations with Pakistan than lecturing this country from Kabul or New Delhi.
As Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi reiterated in his public remarks to Mr Tillerson, Pakistan is committed to the fight against militancy and playing its role to re-establish peace and security in the region.
However, with Afghanistan and particularly India, Pakistan has a number of legitimate grievances that need to be addressed.
The issue of cross-border sanctuaries, for example, cuts both ways along the Pak-Afghan border.
Peace inside Pakistan is unlikely to be established until anti-Pakistan militants on the Afghan side are either eliminated or denied sanctuary.
Lecturing Pakistan, as Mr Tillerson and other US officials are doing, without recognising its legitimate security interests, is a recipe for more regional tension.
Nevertheless, Pakistan must acknowledge the realities of the region and a new US administration.
The long war against militancy has seen Pakistan achieve several successes against anti-Pakistan militants, and groups that have taken up arms against the state and society have been significantly depleted.
While there must be no let-up in that aspect of the war against militancy, it is time for the state to consider how to embark on the next phase towards the total elimination of terrorism, militancy and extremism in the country.
For too long, external demands have been used as a shield against hard questions internally.
That the US and some of Pakistan’s neighbours are demanding something does not automatically make it right — or, indeed, wrong.
Only a zero-tolerance policy towards militancy will achieve true peace for Pakistan.
Published in Dawn, October 26th, 2017