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The more serious issue

February 27, 2011

AS I write this, the wheels are in motion to resolve the Raymond Davis impasse. Ambassador Hussain Haqqani has met US special envoy Marc Grossman in Washington; Gen Kayani has met Adm Mike Mullen in Oman. No doubt, US and Pakistani government officials are thrashing out the details of a mutually palatable resolution to the diplomatic fiasco.

For the first time in weeks, the conversation among Pakistan observers in Washington does not revolve around Davis. Instead, it focuses on a new US Senate Foreign Relations Committee report about the impact of water scarcity on regional stability in South Asia. The juxtaposition of these two issues — Davis and dams — should give Pakistanis pause to think.

The lesson from the Davis affair — no matter how it concludes — is that realpolitik will triumph over petty politics. By the latter, I am referring to the manner in which our diplomacy has been conducted over the past month, not its validity, nor the merits and demerits of its outcome. Certainly, the Davis case has raised extremely serious issues about US-Pakistan relations: US ground presence within our borders, intelligence-sharing protocols, inter-ministry and inter-agency transparency and more. These must be investigated and addressed in a prompt manner. But the Pakistani establishment’s handling of the case also deserves scrutiny.

As Davis’s incarceration presented more complications, the authorities created an echo chamber of anti-Americanism as a political strategy of bilateral engagement. The national media — rather than diplomatic cables — was used to transmit messages between the concerned governments. Pakistan’s intelligence agencies allegedly leaked reports to both local and international media outlets in order to air grievances with the CIA.

For their part, senior Pakistani politicians used the media to highlight disagreements with each other, their political parties and the US government. All the while, journalists enjoyed free rein to demonise Davis and disseminate the wildest conspiracy theories about the particulars of his case.

In short, Pakistan took its strategy of using public opinion as a tool of foreign relations a few steps too far.

But populism and emotionalism are the tricks of amateur politics. As one senior Pakistani government official put it, politicians may think they are playing to the gallery to win approval, but they are inadvertently creating galleries with divergent interests and expectations. The Davis case drives home this point: although the Pakistan government and military remain willing to engage with the US, the public has been hardened against the notion of a strategic partnership — and that’s putting it mildly. The takeaway here is that sensationalism cannot substitute for statecraft.

And this brings us to the second issue of water scarcity and security. If the reliance on manipulated and mediated politics is a reflection of our civilian officials’ capacity for handling sensitive, high-stakes foreign policy predicaments, then we’re in real trouble. The fact is, the presence of Raymond Davises in Pakistan (if indeed they exist in significant number) poses far less a threat to the country — its integrity, sovereignty, and prosperity — than the very real problem of water scarcity.

Pakistan is estimated to be a water-scarce country by 2025, with only 1,000 per capita cubic metres of internal renewable water (down from 2,961 cubic metres in 2000). The current water table is falling by more than two metres per year. Almost 97 per cent of all withdrawals from the Indus waters are for agricultural irrigation purposes. That means water scarcity will quickly translate into food insecurity — a terrifying prospect in a nation where 77 million are already going hungry and 45 million are chronically malnourished. The Pakistan Army has already expressed concerns about water scarcity, pointing to a future in which access to water is seen as a benchmark of national security.

Many of the solutions to Pakistan’s water problems are internal, involving improved irrigation infrastructure, efficiency and management. But as our Foreign Office was quick to point out, the US Senate report also confirms Pakistan’s concerns about India’s ability to limit water supply to Pakistan in the future. In theory, the report suggests, India could use the cumulative capacity of 33 projects — currently at various stages of development — to Pakistan’s detriment.

Given the trans-border dimensions of Pakistan’s water problems, our politicians must be open to discussion, compromise and agreements. The needs of the hour are collaborative projects such as joint river basin analysis, glacial monitoring, monsoon prediction and agriculture policy reform. The Indus Water Treaty may need to be revisited in light of climate change, glacial melt, evolving energy needs and demographic booms in both Pakistan and India. Productive engagement on these issues and initiatives, the report emphasises, could be a basis for peace and cooperation rather than conflict.

If the Davis case is anything to go by, however, our establishment may choose to handle water tensions through a vilification campaign. A precedent for this has already been set: in the wake of the 2010 flooding, Pakistanis accused India of releasing excess water into the Chenab River to exacerbate the inundation. Conversely and perversely, Pakistan has previously complained that India has hoarded water. As climate change causes more erratic water levels in coming years, can we expect more heated rhetoric, leaked statements, and pointed fingers?

If the Pakistani authorities are truly investing in promoting and securing the national interest, they will have to develop a culture of mature politics. Rather than game-playing, they will have to assemble a diplomatic toolbox that can facilitate game-changing. It will take more than hysteria, media savvy and personalised attacks to successfully engage in international diplomacy, especially on issues as primal as water supply. Ultimately, if Pakistan hopes to achieve its foreign policy objectives, its politicians will have to promote an appreciation for realpolitik rather than reality TV among constituents.

The writer is the Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington, D.C.

huma.yusuf@gmail.com