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Who sets the agenda?

April 05, 2011

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SO much has happened between the US and Pakistan in recent months that it is time for a review of their relationship. It would require the two countries to step back and make a dispassionate and objective assessment of their equation.

A couple of days ago, a Pakistani analyst from a western think tank — Washington hosts a number of them of all hues — summed up in this paper the pros and cons of the strategic alliance the two countries have forged.

Moeed Yusuf wrote that the bond between the two countries “is driven by Pakistan’s utility [for the US] in fighting terrorism”. He added, “If it is about the bare minimum, terrorism and insurgency-led violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan may be enough to keep bilateral ties going.” Ironically, according to him, this predicates “the longevity of the interest on terrorism” on the failure of their current efforts to improve relations.

Yusuf goes on to give the long list of “primary interests” to be negotiated. They are actually irrelevant when there is no convergence on a basic framework within which the two states want to deal with one another. This also implies that the two sides find it in their interest to keep the pot boiling. This is exactly what many in Pakistan suspect is being done by their spy agencies.

Some sections of society — the elite and the civil and military bureaucracy — want healthy relations with the US in their own class interest. The vast majority, with the exception of the vocal religious extremists, does not have a say in the matter and probably does not care. It is so busy trying to earn its daily bread that it has no time to join demos or stand up to make its voice heard which in any case will be ignored. Even the religious lobbies use their anti-American stance selectively when they feel the need to embarrass the government. Many of them have received bounties from the US when they found it convenient.

One may well ask then what interest does Washington have in sustaining this relationship that is at best half-hearted? Of course, a lot of ruckus is raised about the danger of terrorism being imported to the American continent from our part of the world. But the main concern of the US is not terrorism. It is oil. With access to Central Asian oil through Afghanistan and the most natural route to Afghanistan through Pakistan, the US would want to retain control over this region.

What is Pakistan’s interest in the US? This question was answered 60 years ago when it entered Seato and the Baghdad Pact in the heyday of non-alignment. Pakistan wanted military aid to defend itself against what it perceived as an Indian threat to its existence. An offshoot of this military relationship was the strengthening of the army and allowing it a free hand in politics. Democracy could never flourish in Pakistan, and Washington has always had a comfortable equation with every military government in Islamabad, the divergence in aims notwithstanding. US arms supply to Islamabad has kept the army happy.

The policies Pakistan was forced to follow, mostly under IMF diktat, have proved to be detrimental to the vast majority. The country has lived with this contradiction because the elites have prospered and helped to mediate American interest in the country.

The souring of ties between the two militaries that resulted in harsh exchanges between the CIA and the ISI also indicated total lack of trust between them. As a result they have been playing a three-cornered game with their common enemy. It is Pakistan that suffered most.

The Raymond Davis episode provided the intelligence the opportunity to put its bigger partner in a tight spot. But we cannot be certain that the worst is over. Take the example of the drones. Since 2004 the US has dispatched drones from bases in the neighbourhood to attack militants from the air to avoid the need for ground operations. This has resulted in a heavy loss of civilian life (see table below).

Year     Number of attacks     Casualties 2004-09      96     1114 2010     134       929 2011       18       127

The Raymond Davis drama interrupted the pattern of events for four weeks but thereafter the drones were back. However, it appears that the deal paving the way for Mr Davis’s flight from Pakistan also addressed the drone issue. There has been no attack since March 17 — 19 drone-free days in a row. But can we assume that the drones will not return? With the Shamsi air base in Balochistan in place, how can one be certain?

Another point of contention is the presence of the CIA undercover agents in large numbers in Pakistan. What is the nature of their responsibilities? It did emerge that Mr Davis was hobnobbing with the militants. Whether all agents have been asked to leave the country is the big question. One cannot feel comfortable about the ISI’s relationship with the Taliban.

It appears that intelligence agencies from both sides are setting the agenda of US-Pakistan relations. Since spy agencies are not accountable to a democratic government their operation lacks transparency. How can it be ensured that the people of Pakistan also stand to gain from this enigmatic state of inter-state relations? The Pakistani intelligence’s first priority is to procure military aid to make the army strong. It is another matter that the country becomes weak in the process.

www.zubeidamustafa.com