THE US and the Afghan Taliban may be walking together but they have different destinations. The Americans are looking for an exit from the war, and the Taliban want the withdrawal of US forces so that they can win the war. If they do get a deal, it might just be half a deal. The war we know may end but the conflict will continue.
Afghanistan’s fundamental problems go beyond any US-Taliban deal. The Taliban are a problem, not the solution. Pakistan may yet again be saddled with an abandoned war whose complexity it cannot resolve. As Henry Kissinger warned in his book Diplomacy, America has the habit of solving one crisis by creating another.
While we hope for the best, there is a lesson here for the future of Pakistan-US relations of which this war has been an unfortunate chapter. The truth is that the relationship has basically been linked to war. And it is dangerous to get involved in America’s wars where the US is always the commanding force of change, often with a flawed strategy.
Since it became a superpower, the US has been getting into wars and exiting impulsively creating consequences for itself and its partners. The wars were incited by an overweening pride in its military power and prompted by domestic political interest groups as explained in Jack Snyder’s book Myths of Empire: Domestic Politics and International Ambition. That did not make for a sound strategy.
The US will demand too much and Pakistan expect too much.
No wonder America-initiated wars invariably failed leaving behind a trail of instability. As a superpower, that too may have been to its benefit. It failed but did not lose.
Pakistan has brought upon itself infinite suffering from its own poor choices in national policy and their advancement through an unqualified partnership with the US. It involved the two Afghan wars — of the 1980s and the ongoing one — and the war against terrorism — the American one and Pakistan’s own. And there was a fourth war that ignited the relationship in the first place ie the Cold War.
During the Cold War, the US to its credit strengthened Pakistan’s defence capabilities and potential for economic development that gave critical help in stabilising the state. But Washington came to play into the power imbalances and structural weakness of Pakistan’s elite-based system and became an external pillar to sustain the system. Thus developed a co-dependency that serviced faulty policies on both sides, setting each other up for blame for their own failures and enhancing the scope for contention in the relationship.
It all began in 1954 with the Mutual Defence Assistance Agreement, and in 65 years since, the US and Pakistan have had three major engagements. If you take away the peak relationship during each of their engagements — 1954-1965, 1979-1989, and 2001-2010 what do you have in the remaining 35 years? Little commonality of interest but differences of varying intensity over China, India, the Taliban, militancy, and the nuclear issue — first the nuclear programme, then A.Q. Khan, and now the tactical nuclear weapons. Of these 35 years, Pakistan was under sanctions for 25.
The Pakistan-US relationship was never strategic. In a strategic relationship, there is a larger conceptual framework embracing an enduring shared vision. The irony is the relationship was never truly transactional either. It was transactional but dealing with strategic issues without a strategic framework. This made it difficult to manage the relationship that had to navigate differences of perception, policy and interests. No wonder the strategic consensus constructed by the two sides for domestic political purposes kept collapsing once America’s need for Pakistan was fulfilled.
The 21st century’s shifting power balances and geopolitics, and the post-9/11 security challenges have changed South Asia. It has become an arena for overlapping coalitions among regional and global players in which Pakistan finds itself on the wrong side of Washington. That has altered the dynamics of US engagement with Pakistan.
Pakistan needs to change its perspective on the relationship by reconciling to the fact that Pakistan-US differences have been permanent and agreements temporary. And resolve never to get involved in another American war. Given the history of the relationship, Washington will demand too much and Pakistan expect too much. That is a recipe for endless tensions.
America’s war aims will always be different from Pakistan’s. In a failing war especially, there will be demands from Washington that would be hard to accommodate. Pakistan may be rewarded during the war but punished later.
Analyst Bruce Reidel calls the relationship with Pakistan a “deadly embrace” in a book of the same name. Pakistan, he says, is at the crossroads of many of America’s nightmares. He may not know that many Pakistanis may have long come to the same conclusion about America.
The writer, a former ambassador, is adjunct faculty Georgetown and Syracuse University.
Published in Dawn, March 15th, 2019