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Not just Trump

February 06, 2018

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PUBLIC criticism of Pakistan in the US has become muted. And there was no mention of Pakistan in Donald Trump’s State of the Union message. But that does not mean bilateral tensions have eased, especially as the recent terrorist incidents in Afghanistan are likely to refocus attention on Pakistan and raise questions about the Trump strategy.

President Trump’s New Year Day tweet and his subsequent decision to suspend nearly $2 billion in US security assistance had rested on many faulty assumptions, about the history of US-Pakistan relations, the internal dynamics of Afghanistan, and the complexities of the war. Mr Trump said what many critics of Pakistan, in the military, Congress, intelligence organisations, and the strategic community, had been saying for some time though less offensively.

At the heart of this flawed view by the US leadership and the foreign and defence policy establishment are the systemic issues in the making of American foreign policy, and the constant challenge of reconciling politics and policy. There is not much Pakistan can do to understand the system. But we should at least try to understand why it is that Washington thinks Pakistan was cooperating with it only for aid and its withdrawal could force a policy change.

This US is looking to punish Pakistan while still engaged with it.

The central problem with the Pak-US relationship is that it has always lacked a strategic consensus. Each side was using the other to advance interests of its own that impacted negatively on the interests of its partner. Both benefited from their alliance but not without a cost. There being no strategic reason for a long-term commitment to Pakistan, the US exited as soon as the need for Pakistan was met, and punished it for policies that went against US interests. Pressler sanctions are a case in point.

The trouble is that the Pakistani leadership never really tried to understand American policies nor did it define or frame the relationship in the larger interest of the country, certainly not since the days of Ayub Khan which is the last time Washington actually helped Pakistan. Subsequent leadership, civilians and military alike, got addicted to the relationship for reasons of aid and their political survival to the point of the country’s interests being sacrificed. Washington knew and exploited it.

Much damage was done during the time of presidents Zia and Musharraf. Zia was desperate for Washington’s embrace as he needed legitimacy and economic aid, and his constituency, the army, sought military assistance. The US connection ended up fulfilling exactly the objectives he had in mind. After a decade of isolation, sanctions and threats, Washington returned to Pakistan in 2001. It made a correct assessment that Pakistan’s leadership, isolated and lacking legitimacy like Zia before, would be keen to get aligned with the US for the rewards that come with it. And Pakistan was shortchanged yet again.

In time, the Pakistani leadership too came to play the same game with Washington. That is why not long after their post 9/11 re-engagement the relationship started fraying as the attempts by the two sides to take advantage of each other made it difficult even for the transactional relationship to work.

Unlike the previous engagements when at least one interest or another of each side was being served while they lost in other areas, this time neither sides had satisfaction on any major count. Pakistan suffered horrendous damage from the spillover of the Afghanistan war, and the US thought its aid was not serving the purpose for which it was being given. So for the first time in the history of their ties, Washington was looking to punish Pakistan while still engaged with it. That is the central tension in the relationship now.

Pakistan should have levelled off with the Americans right from the start, laying down red lines on what it could do and what it would not, and tried to find convergence in interests and policies where it could. Instead, the leadership for the fear of losing aid apparently opted to misrepresent their policies and made promises they could not deliver. In the process Pakistan let all valuable cooperation it gave to the US and the sacrifices it made go unappreciated.

If the focus remains on aid, the bilateral conversation will continue to be to Pakistan’s disadvantage. Pakistan needs to isolate the aid factor from the dialogue. Then it can speak from a position of strength, with all the leverage on intelligence and security cooperation, ground and air lines of communication, and other support to the Afghan war effort. The aim should be to make ties interests-based not aid-driven. Is aid more important than national interests? Pakistan is getting there but not quite.

The writer, a former ambassador, is adjunct faculty Georgetown University and Maxwell School of Syracuse University.

Published in Dawn, February 6th, 2018