New directions?

Published October 1, 2022
The writer, a former ambassador, is adjunct professor at Georgetown University and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the National University of Singapore.
The writer, a former ambassador, is adjunct professor at Georgetown University and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the National University of Singapore.

FOREIGN MINISTER Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari has just visited Washington. By all accounts, his visit helped carry forward the recent revival of Pakistan-US ties that have seen significant developments including the potential sale of F-16 aircraft sustainment equipment worth $450 million, and the positive US response to the flood crisis.

Speaking at the Wilson Centre, the minister said he was heartened by the new US approach to relations with Pakistan.

There is an obvious attempt by US policy planners to reset the relationship, and give it a new meaning. But the challenge is that the relationship has become the subject of contentious debate in Pakistan.

Pakistan’s unhappiness with America has existed for decades but not for all the right reasons. The post 9/11 US-Pakistan engagement changed all that. What used to be grudges and mistrust turned into grievances and anger as the larger war on terrorism and especially the Afghanistan war brought loss and suffering to Pakistan. Sentiments against the US, whipped up by growing Islamist influence in Pakistan and reaction to Washington’s perceived anti-Islam policies, merged with the broader anti-Americanism in the Muslim world, and was further boosted by the opposition to the US-supported military dictatorship, and the extraordinary new US-India ties, especially the nuclear deal.

Anti-Americanism thus soared and was amplified by the media revolution. Feelings against America and Gen Musharraf sought expression in religious, democratic and nationalist waves which all merged, creating a perfect storm. This was an ideal setting for the arrival of a populist.

Populists do not create public attitudes. They harden and exploit them. They invent enemies and pose as saviours. It was thus that Imran Khan claimed to be on a mission to save Pakistan’s population from corrupt politicians and America that was seen as supporting them. Anti-Americanism became pervasive, but also reflected considerable public unhappiness with governance, the elite and the status quo. It was not all about America. At some level it was not even about America.

There is an attempt at resetting Pak-US ties.

It was natural for the US to be concerned about its public image and whether Pakistan was serving its interests. But, for Washington, while ties with Pakistan were useful they were not indispensable so as to require a regime change.

Read: Need for a reset

At Ambassador Asad Majeed’s farewell lunch, did Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu threaten a regime change? No. He did not need to. He had confidence in Pakistan’s US-friendly power structure. Did he say America could not work with Imran Khan? He might have. Big powers are always expressing their preferences for or against other governments.

Pakistan has a new government, and the US is out of the Afghan war, whose failure was partly blamed on Pakistan. Two of the obstacles to the revival of US-Pakistan ties are thus out of the way. The US also realises that a China policy in South Asia that puts all its eggs in the India basket is not good.

As State Department spokesman Ned Price said recently: “The relationship we have with India stands on its own; the relationship we have with Pakistan stands on its own.”

The US and Pakistan face common security challenges which neither can solve alone. By re-engaging, both will also be diversifying their relations in the region and beyond giving themselves greater leverage and options in pursuit of their respective economic and strategic interests.

Being economically weak, and struggling with potential instability, caused by the challenges of extremism, socioeconomic discontent, cross-border terrorism, and threats of insurgencies, Pakistan has no choice but to have amenable relations with all major powers. Ame­rica can’t be ignored, and not just for security co­­operation. It is Pakistan’s largest export destination. There is vast untap­ped potential for IT cooperation. And Washington is keen to explore other areas of economic cooperation.

Imran Khan is right: Pakistan should follow an independent foreign policy. But one does not have to be anti-US to be independent. The foundation of an independent policy rests on internal strength, freeing one of external dependency and vulnerability to exploitation, and helping to defend national interests. Then one can relate to big powers not because there is no other option but because one may want to. It is Pakistan we have to fix, not America.

Is the road to improved ties clear? Not quite. Uncertainties remain. Divergent influences will shape and impact the trajectory of the future relationship — unfavourably on account of US-India ties; positively on account of Pakistan’s potential counterterrorism help; inconsistently on account of Pakistan-Afghan Taliban ties; unpredictably on account of US-China tensions. Above all, the trajectory of Pakistan’s domestic politics will define ties.

The writer, a former ambassador, is adjunct professor at Georgetown University and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the National University of Singapore.

Published in Dawn, October 1st, 2022

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