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WASHINGTON: The United States has ultimately seen that its demand for Pakistan to do more was unsuccessful, says the country’s former envoy to Washington, Ali Jehangir Siddiqui.

Mr Siddiqui, who served in Washington from May to Dec 2018 — a period when Pak-US ties went from cold to frigid — spoke to Dawn about the complexities in relations between the two countries, the challenges he faced as an envoy, and whether Pakistan can contribute to normality in Afghanistan.

“I cannot say whether they recognise that it was an unfair demand, ie Pakistan had done a lot at a great cost to herself. But it is clear that the US South Asia strategy was not successful,” said Mr Siddiqui when asked how did America’s demand for Pakistan to do more affect bilateral ties.

“I think that Pakistan has gained from standing its ground. Of course, in the interim there was a lot of pressure on the relationship but we sustained it,” he added.

Asked if Pakistan can help create a semblance of normality in Afghanistan as the Americans demand, Mr Siddiqui said: “There is a lot of focus on Pakistan here but we have already done everything we can. We used every ounce of security and diplomatic goodwill we had to get all parties on the table.”

Referring to Pakistan’s efforts to persuade the Taliban to hold direct talks with the Americans, Ambassador Siddiqui said the outcome of these talks would be determined by the Americans and the Afghan people, not Pakistan.

“The Americans understand that and we are facilitating the process as best we can because not only is peace in Afghanistan a noble goal but Pakistan has been the second worst sufferer in this conflict and we want a peaceful Afghanistan,” he said.

Asked what he believed was preventing US-Pakistan relations from taking off, Mr Siddiqui said it was the lack of “clarity on both sides.”

He noted that Pakistan had not had the broad-based strategic dialogue with the US for a long time and that had held things back.

“But when we did have the strategic dialogue in the Obama years that was precisely when the relationship was worsening rapidly. So, the problem is deeper than a structured engagement,” he said.

“There is mistrust on both sides that needs to be unwound and that will take an effort where the leadership on both sides need to be engaged by the respective diplomats and historical issues are discussed and we clear and put the last 20 years of history behind us.”

He disagreed with the common perception that the US and Pakistan sides fail to understand each other and instead of talking to each other, they talk across each other.

“I don’t think this perception is correct. The bureaucracies on both sides are sophisticated. But the US political system has much more influence in its bureaucracy compared to ours,” he said.

Mr Siddiqui noted that many US bureaucrats at the assistant secretary and higher levels were political appointees, providing a strong political dimension in their system, which ensured that the direction that the US president wanted was where the system went.

“So, both sides have an understanding of each other and of their own historical positions. It is true that both sides don’t spend enough time understanding where the other is coming from and frequently miss the considerations and pressures the other side has to manage,” he said.

Mr Siddiqui said that since Pakistan was often busy dealing with short-term issues and crises, there was limited long-term policy planning at least vis-a-vis the US.

Asked if Pakistanis were serious about building a trade- and not aid-based relationship, the former ambassador said: “I sometimes think that our policy planners missed something here. Trade not aid is quite dated, by some decades. The adage to teach a man to fish, not give him fish has been replaced by teaching a man to change fishing! In the same way, trade not aid is no longer applicable.”

He noted that both aid and trade were important but with all the evolutions in technology and other changes in the world, Pakistan needed to look for something new, perhaps technology, not trade.

“The question we must answer is more fundamental as I posed earlier, which is to say where we want to see the Pakistan-US relationship in say 15 years,” said Mr Siddiqui when asked if the old security-based relationship can be restored.

“If we want a close partnership, then a security basis is bound to be a part of it. We must then examine how a close security partnership with the US reflects on our other relationships including ones that we take to be close to as a result of exclusionary policies from the US,” he said.

He noted that the JF-17 fighter jet programme, a partnership between Pakistan and China, became a necessity as a result of the US not selling warplanes. “So, the old security-based relationship, in my view, cannot be restored but there is space for a broad successful and close partnership that has a security dimension which recognises our other security partnerships. We are not alone in navigating such waters,” he said.

“Saying we have a strategic location, like saying we have a young population, is taking a one-sided position on what is a fact,” said Mr Siddiqui when asked Pakistan’s strategic location was an asset or an obstacle.

“A one-sided position, while correct on its own, ignores the disadvantages. A youthful population also means a struggle to get them employed while a strategic location means geopolitical complexity,” he said.

Mr Siddiqui said as ambassador he dealt with the country’s strategic location as a fact and sometimes this provided advantages and other times there were complexities.

“But all complexity is an opportunity to clear matters; for example, we were caught up in the US-China competition as a result of our strategic location, CPEC and closeness to China,” he said.

Published in Dawn, January 12th, 2019