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Making it strategic

October 21, 2010

THE current round of the strategic dialogue between Pakistan and the United States was proposed at President Obama's initiative as a means to build a partnership based on “mutual trust and mutual respect” that would lead to a more stable relationship between the two countries.

However, while both parties recognise that they need each other, their ties continue to swing between cooperation and confrontation and remain plagued by suspicions. Recent leaks in both capitals reveal major hiccups which do not bode well for the stability of the relationship. Obama's Wars

The fragility of these ties has been laid bare by Bob Woodward in his book , which confirms that Pakistan continues to occupy “centre stage” in Washington but for all the wrong reasons. Moreover, it reveals that Washington is no longer taking the current civilian leadership seriously, viewing it as weak, corrupt and incompetent, while the army high command is seen as “having the power to deliver, but refusing to do much”.

This is evident in the manner in which senior US officials, including US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, castigated the government for its failure to improve governance. At the just-concluded Friends of Democratic Pakistan meeting in Brussels, Secretary Clinton abandoned all pretence of diplomatic civility, warning that “it is absolutely unacceptable for those with means in Pakistan not to be doing their fair share to help their own people, while the taxpayers of Europe, the US and other contributing countries are all chipping in.”

This was echoed by others, including EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton who stressed that the international community wanted to “learn more about Pakistan's strategy for a longer-term comprehensive approach to recovery and how it will tackle structural impediments”.

In other words, our friends have had enough of excuses; they want action and want it now. More worrying is President Obama's resolve, shared by his principal aides, that if American goals in Afghanistan are thwarted or if there is a terrorist strike in the US, which can be traced to Pakistan, the US “would be forced to do things that Pakistan would not like. No one will be able to stop the response and consequences”.

This message, conveyed directly to President Zardari, came with the warning that the US had drawn up a plan to bomb “150 terrorist centres in Pakistan”. While it would be folly to view this as mere bluster, it would be equally naïve of Washington not to consider the disastrous consequences, given the fragility of the current political set-up and the virulently anti-American sentiments in Pakistan.

Meanwhile, news emanating from Washington confirms that notwithstanding the desire of Gen Petraeus to see “sons and grandsons fighting in Afghanistan”, President Obama remains determined to begin reducing American presence there in less than a year.

It is in this context that comments by both Secretary of Defence Robert Gates and Secretary Clinton in Brussels last week, that the Obama administration is now a partner of the Afghan government in its peace talks with the Taliban, acquire significance. Secretary Gates clarified that though the US was not officially participating in the talks, it was closely monitoring them and offering counsel.

Other reports suggest that Nato is providing safe passage to Taliban officials engaged in the talks. Secretary Clinton defended the administration by claiming that “stranger things have happened in the history of war”.

This development carries risks and opportunities for both the US and Pakistan. President Obama's critics may accuse him of negotiating with the very people who harboured Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda leadership prior to 9/11, but the administration is hoping that by reiterating its commitment to troop withdrawal, the president may be able to offer some comfort to his war-weary supporters. US commanders would also be hoping that news of dialogue with the Taliban leaders will sow discord in the ranks of the fighters.

Islamabad should welcome American encouragement of dialogue with the Taliban, while ensuring that we not only remain involved in the process but are able to protect our interests. This can be done by encouraging genuine reconciliation in Afghanistan by using Pakistan's linkages with the Taliban leadership to bring about a transitional government that addresses many of Pakistan's concerns.

As Strategic Forecasting, a US think-tank, commented last week: “The US needs its withdrawal to take place in a manner that strengthens its influence rather than weakens it and Pakistan can provide the cover for turning a retreat into a negotiated settlement.”

The 'strategic dialogue' therefore comes at a critical time, not only because of significant developments in Afghanistan but also because a number of other trends in the region call for deep analysis.

One of the most important will be the outcome of President Obama's forthcoming visit to India. He may not be as starry-eyed about India as Clinton or Bush, but being a cold practitioner of power politics he cannot be oblivious to the tremendous political and economic advantages that the US could derive from getting India firmly in its strategic embrace.

The recent cooling of relations between Washington and Beijing and public expressions of concern by Clinton and Gates about China's “ambitions” in the Pacific could not have come at a more opportune moment for India.

It is in this context that the Indian army chief's statement describing China and Pakistan as “threats” should be seen. Neither India nor the US is happy with Islamabad reverting to its traditional position on Kashmir. But President Obama needs to be reminded of his election campaign remark, that there can be no peace in the region without a peaceful resolution of the Kashmir issue.

While US interests, for understandable reasons, lie in securing Pakistan's cooperation in the war against terror, genuine strategic ties can only be established through a deeper understanding of each other's concerns and interests. n

The US should strive to move beyond the hitherto single-item agenda and demonstrate, through tangible initiatives, that it wishes to promote political stability in Pakistan and the economic well-being of its people.