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Time for introspection

May 15, 2011


LAST week I testified before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Pakistan-US relations. I advocated for a long-term relationship with Pakistan, going much beyond the ‘end-game’ in Afghanistan.

Given that the Senate hearing was taking place less than a week after Osama bin Laden was found in Abbottabad, this was never going to be an easy sell — especially so, since the only reason why a long-term engagement with Pakistan is a necessity (as I see it) for America is a negative one: Pakistan’s failure risks causing a systemic meltdown of the region, and perhaps much beyond. There is nothing much to gain directly by propping up Pakistan, at least, not till Pakistan is able to course correct drastically. But there is a lot to lose if things go wrong.

The reactions during the hearing and subsequent feedback I received from various circles on my statement provide a good sense of the mood in Washington, and where it is likely to take the relationship in the coming weeks and months.

First, the most conspicuous vibe: patience with Pakistan is running extremely thin after the Bin Laden episode. Virtually all feedback questions Islamabad’s role as a partner. Pakistan’s importance is understood but it is increasingly seen as a nuisance rather than as a positive force. And the nuisance value is unlikely to be tolerated for longer than it needs to be — Afghanistan being the obvious cut-off.

Second, the outlook on US assistance is interesting. On the one hand, notwithstanding calls for revisiting US assistance from various quarters in Washington, there is no support for cutting off aid to Pakistan. No such drastic measure is on the cards.

That said, the space for viewing aid as a purely development tool (as I had argued) over the long term has all but disappeared. The ‘development for development’s sake’ argument was never popular but tensions in the relationship in recent months and finally the Osama bin Laden episode seems to have settled the debate once and for all. As we move forward then, assistance to Pakistan is likely to be seen even more so from a security prism.

Third, while Washington is set to enter into negotiations to find a political settlement in Afghanistan, the recent episode has cast serious doubts on just how much Islamabad can be trusted to lend a genuine helping hand. The Pakistani establishment had tried very hard, and succeeded to a large extent, to convince Washington of the need to provide Islamabad a central role in the reconciliation phase. After Bin Laden, this has once again become an open question.

Finally, politically, Washington remains committed to working with the civilian government. However, even here, questions continue to be raised about the credibility deficit between the government and Pakistani citizens, which often ends up portraying the US as propping up a discredited civilian set-up. I have heard many in Pakistan argue that Washington prefers a weak government in Islamabad. The rationale? Arm-twisting is easier. The fact, however, is that weakness of the civilian set-up is a huge liability since it fails to convince Pakistanis of the efficacy of the bilateral partnership and of the US efforts to assist Pakistan.

Increasingly, the mood in Washington is one of resignation; most see efforts at stabilising the civilian sectors failing. Giving up on a sustained effort thus becomes an even more compelling argument.

Simply put then, the post-Bin Laden mood does not leave many takers for what I had pleaded in my testimony. The drift is likely to be towards an even more tactical engagement.

There are two ways to react to this.

One is the usual script. US policy has been flawed all along; the US is not appreciative of the sacrifices Pakistan has made in this war; it was never interested in a long-term partnership; it is looking for excuses to walk away again; the world is out to get Pakistan.

But there is another more reasonable way of absorbing this information: introspecting.

Is it really outright unreasonable for the world to be losing patience with Pakistan? Is the Pakistani state doing all it needs to assuage global fears, even on issues where international opinion and Pakistani interests converge?

Is the US solely responsible for the transactional nature of the relationship to date? Is it not true that it was President Musharraf who went out of his way to agree to a rentier arrangement for his military; and to strike all sorts of opaque deals with his American counterpart?

Is it also not a fact that tremendous leakage of foreign assistance takes place on the Pakistani side but we are quick to transfer the blame to the donor (problems with the supply side of aid notwithstanding)? Is it reasonable for the world to keep assisting Pakistan when the Pakistani elite is actively stalling efforts to tax itself? Should the average Pakistani not be resentful of the fact that such elite actions are bringing the country a bad name?

In the post-9/11 world, can a country be viewed positively if one of the main selling points of its leaders is a fear of terrorists getting out of control? Is inability to prevent terrorism something that can help countries acquire respect in a world that increasingly values markets over Machiavellian tactics.

What positive value does Islamabad bring to the table? Do we have attractive markets, a booming economy, tourism, educational or health facilities that would generate interest?

None of this is meant to detract from the many failings of the US policy towards Pakistan or the fact that some of them have ended up exacerbating Pakistan’s problems. I have discussed these in great detail in previous columns. But equally, this cannot be an excuse to ignore internal failings; it is about time Pakistanis own up to the fact that our own house is not exactly in order. The principal failure is internal, and so is the fix.

There is not a single nation that has gained respect and stature purely by convincing the world that it is too important to be allowed to fail. Sooner or later, others will let go and prefer to deal with the consequences as they come.

The writer is South Asia adviser at the US Institute of Peace, Washington, D.C.