US PRESIDENT Donald Trump has triggered another spat. But such wrangling is not new. It has lived with the relationship since its inception. The reasons are many. At the heart of these reasons is the reality that it is not a normal bilateral relationship.
Trump’s remarks reflect this reality better than the public and official reaction of Pakistan. The fact is, it is not Pakistan but its services that have been important to Washington. And the value of the relationship has depended on the quality of the service. Pakistan is naïve in seeking gratitude for what it has done or sympathy for what it has suffered. Americans always look at what lies ahead. That is the psyche behind ‘do more’. You cannot negotiate with them backwards.
Pakistan has no permanent importance for Washington, nor any lasting place in its foreign policy. Pakistan’s importance has varied according to fluctuating American interests in the region, putting it sometimes alongside Washington, and sometimes against it. Even when the two countries were fully aligned, there were different reasons for that. No wonder each side’s interests have historically been met only partially, and at the cost of some other important interests. That is why the relationship never really enjoyed a strategic consensus in either country, nor did it develop enduring public support.
It is not Pakistan but its services that have been important to the US.
But why has the relationship persisted? Because at times both have faced challenges that neither could solve without the other’s help. The US critically needed Pakistan’s intel and military help in Afghanistan at the time of the final battle of the Cold War, and then post 9/11. And Pakistan’s leadership at the time was desperate for the American embrace as it searched for security assistance and aid for the troubled national economy. The relationship served some important strategic and security interests of the US. But its value for Pakistan remained questionable. Between the military rule and the fallout of the US connection, Pakistan has never been the same again.
Americans understood the relationship well. But Pakistan got addicted to it and remains so even if the times have changed. Pakistan has to understand it is dealing with a capitalist country with an advanced democracy, where foreign policy is heavily influenced by domestic politics and is produced by the mechanics of many different pulls and pushes. Issues like terrorism, jihadism and a failing Afghanistan war incited high public concern and put the spotlight on Pakistan.
A largely misinformed American public and an aggrieved US military, unhappy about Pakistan’s unhelpful role in Afghanistan and often speaking through the Congress, thus ended up weighing negatively on the relationship. If Pakistan was not delivering, why are we giving it any money, they ask. The fact that Pakistan is living beyond its means and always looking for bailouts does no favour to the country’s image. Pakistan is not a front-line ally that can override such public scrutiny.
Pakistan also did not realise that US foreign policy decisions are not always made in the best national interests of its own or those of its allies. The political leadership in the US is constantly experiencing a tussle between the electoral calendar on the one hand and strategic imperatives on the other, between America’s own interests that are global, and those of its allies that are local and regional. On top of that, it has also to contend with congressional oversight, special interests, lobbies, and a cumbersome inter-agency process. That does not make for the best public policy.
It is also ironical that ties with Pakistan address strategic interests but through the framework of a transactional relationship, as Pakistan does not have permanent strategic value for the US. In fact, the emerging regional and geopolitical context gives Pakistan a negative strategic value. It is now better for America’s adversaries than for America. Not just the ordinary public but the foreign policy community in Washington too ends up finding Pakistan as the wrong ally. Trump speaks for both strands of opinion.
The sad reality is Pakistan did have a part to play in the failure of the Afghan war. Washington finds Pakistan’s Afghan Taliban policy as indefensible as its support for jihadists. Unfortunately, the feeling in the US is that Pakistan has become a negative force for US interests in the region by allying with Washington’s rival China and having tense ties with US allies like India.
The relationship with Washington is important. But Pakistan should never walk into it blindly again. It must set the terms of engagement beforehand as America has no sense of history except its own. If it is ‘America first’ on one side it should be ‘Pakistan first’ on the other. Let the chips fall where they may.
The writer, a former ambassador, is adjunct faculty Georgetown University and Syracuse University.
Published in Dawn, November 26th, 2018