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On again, off again

Updated September 11, 2018

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The new American secretary of state popped in to meet the new government in town. Before he came and after he left, there was much talk of a reset of a relationship that has a Ross-Rachel (from the sitcom Friends) feel to it by now. Part of the reason for this has been the influx of visitors from Washington whose stops in Islamabad are rather frequent.

Mike Pompeo was only following in the footsteps of his predecessor who was here in October, while State Department officials such as Lisa Curtis (deputy assistant to the president, and senior director for South and Central Asia at the National Security Council) and Alice Wells (principal deputy assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs) have made many a stop. For example, Wells made at least four visits in this year alone. Pentagon hasn’t been remiss either, for Secretary of Defence James Mattis popped over in December, shortly after Centcom chief James Vottel in November.

Indeed, while Donald Trump may be tweeting away and announcing punishing measures, the visitors keep the ‘we-are-on-a-break’ rhetoric from sounding too ominous. But neither the harsh messages emanating from Washington nor the frequent visits are enough to stop one from asking the other: ‘Where are we headed?’

The gap between the two sides appears to be as wide as the one between the 30 seconds and the entire night problem from When Harry Met Sally.

The story is best told not by handshakes, but the messages that Pakistan and the US sent out.

The story is best told not by handshakes, but the messages the two sides send out. The real message lies between the words.

When Alice Wells came in March, her side of the story was about Pakistan’s ‘commitment’ to eliminating all terrorist groups within its borders, while the Foreign Office said the two sides were looking for common ground. A month earlier, Lisa Curtis had also spoken of ‘commitment’ — Pakistan’s — to defeat terrorist groups that threaten regional stability and security. For the Americans, it wasn’t about promise or intent but a commitment that has been made. However, Pakistan in its own message was simply seeking ‘common ground’.

Curtis and Wells also thought it fit to mention the Haqqani group in their press releases once their visit was over, an addition that wasn’t missed and was interpreted to show the pressure being exerted by the US.

Despite this, the use of ‘commitment’ seemed more palatable than what was said when the previous secretary of states, Rex Tillerson and James Mattis (both were here in 2017), visited — there were few reminders of past promises and commitments and a little more about what Pakistan calls ‘do more’. A tougher way to give a message, perhaps.

Pakistan ‘must’ was their mantra. “Pakistan must redouble its efforts to confront militants and terrorists operating within the country” said one while the other stated that it “must increase efforts to eradicate militants and terrorists operating within the country”. As there is not much difference in the substance it is irrelevant to identify which message belongs to which secretary.

Pakistan’s message was a little different. Back then, it wasn’t looking for common ground and was more interested in expressing its concerns — that its efforts were not being reciprocated (when Vottel was in town) and that India was being given too much importance. But the general environment then was far from friendly. ‘Tough’ was a word used often in the stories about the Tillerson visit, as was ‘frosty’. One story headline spoke of a ‘demanding’ Tillerson.

The new year brought further bad news. The White House suspended military aid as the visits continued. Perhaps in a bid to balance the ‘tough’ actions, the finer text held out a small promise — of a new relationship and moving forward. By January, the Americans were still harping on the Haqqani network and its ‘continuing presence’ but they also spoke of moving forward towards ‘a new relationship’ based on mutual interest in realising a stable and prosperous region.

This is around the time that Washington expressed an interest in dialogue with the Afghan Taliban when Lisa Wells commented that the “door is open” for talks. This might have created an impetus to add a bit of warmth to the exchanges between Pakistan and the US. But such efforts did not signal a sharp break with the past, and Washington isn’t averse to reminding Pakistan.

By the time the new secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, flew over this month, Washington had already acted on its threat of cutting off the Coalition Support Fund. The decision was announced days before he got here. The timing was probably deliberate, and as an US official said in Washington, “our approach of cutting assistance and pressuring Pakistan on their relationship with the Taliban, persuading them to come to the table, dealing with terrorist networks will be sustained”.

When away from Islamabad, the American officials tend to be less diplomatic, as they are in their answers in Kabul and Delhi.

No wonder then that in the press release issued after Pompeo’s visit, the tone was a wee conciliatory — he spoke of the “important role Pakistan could play in bringing about a negotiated peace in Afghanistan” before he “conveyed the need for … sustained and decisive measures against terrorists and militants threatening regional peace”. But the message hadn’t really changed — the US was still pushing for ‘do more’.

Yet, there was a sense of hope in the air at home. Story after story spoke of a ‘reset’ in ties or a new beginning. Admittedly, this was mostly true of Pakistani papers (and a news wire story or two). From across the Atlantic, the view continued to be a little more dismal — the headlines there continued to refer to ‘rocky’ or ‘fraying’ relations.

Indeed, we would do well not to hope for a turnaround. But neither will there be a complete break. The two sides are stuck in an on-again-off-again relationship. But, there are no guarantees, this will end as happily as Ross and Rachel’s story did.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, September 11th, 2018