IS a collapse of Pak-US ties imminent or can a modicum of stability be salvaged? The signals from the US are far from promising.
Step by step, US assistance to Pakistan is being withdrawn, the latest being an announcement on Thursday that all security aid to Pakistan has been suspended. While the suspension can be reversed and civilian aid has not yet been frozen, the trajectory becoming apparent is of progressively increasing US pressure on Pakistan.
The publicly known demands of the US centre on further action by Pakistan against the Haqqani network and Afghan Taliban elements that may have found sanctuary in Pakistan. In return, the US has promised unspecified greater cooperation with and assistance for Pakistan.
It ought to be clear why such a deal is unappealing for Pakistan: the already troublesome ‘do more’ mantra has been replaced with a ‘do more or else’ warning.
Even from a transactional perspective that Pak-US ties have slipped towards, a bullying US approach is unnecessary, unwelcome and threatens to achieve the opposite of what the Trump administration claims it is seeking.
A more welcome surprise has been the Pakistani state’s measured response to the US provocations. In the past, anti-American sentiment has been stoked among the public as a buffer against US demands. But that has mostly had the effect of reducing the room for the state to manoeuvre in the necessary but complicated relationship with the US.
Arguably, the withholding of financial assistance for military purposes to Pakistan may eventually prove to be a boon.
Since Pakistan began to cooperate with the US in the fight against Al Qaeda and indirectly assist the US-led war in Afghanistan, the money that Pakistan has received for vital military operations inside Pakistan has been attacked by extremists and militants as a symbol of a vassal state.
The US assistance has also made it more difficult for the state to convince the public that the domestic fight against militancy is Pakistan’s fight for its own interests.
With the financial assistance already having been throttled in recent years, a temporary halt may help the Pakistani state persuade sceptical sections of the public about the necessity of the fight against militancy, terrorism and extremism.
Pakistan’s deeply unfair taxation system can be improved to make up for unexpected budgetary shortfalls.
Yet, as both the political government and the military leadership appear to have recognised, Pakistan must continue to seek ways to cooperate with the US in areas where the two countries’ interests converge and manage tensions in areas where interests diverge.
The US may be undergoing political turmoil and there may be other regional and global centres that Pakistan can seek better relations with, but in an interconnected world built on a post-World War II US-led architecture, the US has the capacity to significantly hurt other countries.
Pakistan must proceed carefully.
Published in Dawn, January 6th, 2018