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Uncertain times

December 04, 2011


THE tragic killing of Pakistan’s security personnel by Nato forces refocuses attention on the nagging question as to what the US-Pakistan relationship is about.

The fact is relations have become even harder to understand. They are burdened by powerful emotions and the heavy baggage of history. As the Haqqani affair and the recent Republican Party presidential debates tell us, the relations are much more than a foreign policy issue; they have interloped to varying degrees into the body politic of each country.

Indeed they are not even relations anymore. Pakistan and the US have almost become belligerents in a war. Not one but multiple wars; Afghanistan is one, the drones another, and now the border attacks, and then the war the Pakistan Army is fighting at America’s behest. The relationship is not just between the US and Pakistan; at a certain level it is also between Pakistan and a US-led alliance in the region.

Most disturbing is that the two countries are maintaining ties from a position of weakness. Pakistan faces an acute internal and external crisis. And the US is led by a weakened presidency facing a difficult re-election, an unpopular Congress and a frustrated Pentagon fighting a war that is going nowhere. Each side is blaming the other for its own failures and asking it to compensate. Both have an evenly matched leverage; so neither can force the other’s hand.

Although historically the relationship did serve some critical interests of each country, this has not reflected a long-term policy based on a larger conceptual framework, a shared vision or continuity.

The relationship was essentially expedient and over time became exploitative as each took advantage of the other’s dependency. The more transactional the relationship has become, the harder it has been to develop any strategic consensus.

No wonder there have been recurring crises in the relationship.

In the past it was relatively easy to handle or live with the crises given the limited nature of issues involved and the fact that the relationship was built largely on a foundation on which there existed a certain coherence in public policy even if flawed.

In the US, not much public pressure was exerted on policy since the issues did not affect the people directly. The public voice was expressed indirectly through Congress whose position was guided by ideology, partisanship or political opportunism.

Some in Congress saw Pakistan negatively through the prism of India, democracy or proliferation concerns. And those friendly to Pakistan treated it as an ally on hire, to be fired at will. Pakistan’s enemies were thus permanent but friends were temporary.

In Pakistan, the story has been different. While as a superpower it was easy for the US to weave in and out of Pakistan, the latter became addicted to the relationship that served the ends of Pakistan’s ruling elite, civilian and military. Ordinary people were either marginalised or had little say in public policy. That virtually gave policymakers in Washington a free hand in treating the leadership of Pakistan as unprincipled mercenaries.

It took time for ordinary Pakistanis to discover that the ruling elite benefited from the relationship while they paid the cost.

Besides, they felt that the US had not been a true friend. All this laid a strong foundation for the present-day anti-Americanism. And in the US over time grew similar anti-Pakistan sentiments because Americans do not like ‘unreliable’ allies. They believe the purpose of aid is to ‘buy’ cooperation, to do America’s bidding — that does not seem to be happening now.

These negative images have been magnified to a point where we have a completely new relationship in the post 9/11 world, based on new realisations and realities. With a super-active media, the US-Pakistan relationship has been ‘radicalised’.

At the heart of the relationship are serious policy dilemmas. In Washington there are many stakeholders with multiple interests. The administration does not know whether to focus on Pakistan or Afghanistan, to treat Pakistan as an ally or a target, as a country under rescue or siege, as an adjunct to the Afghanistan crisis or a crisis by itself.

Pakistanis are facing their own dilemmas. At the policy level there is the civil-military divide, while the public has come to define all national problems in terms of US-Pakistan relations and finds that the solutions lie in adopting an anti-American stance. The relationship has lost its centre of gravity and sense of direction.

Both countries are condemned to an unproductive relationship unless they recognise their own shortcomings and come to terms with the larger issues at stake. Pakistan has to make a choice and redefine its national purpose.

And Washington has to rebalance American foreign policy, move beyond the 9/11 tragedy and the wars it has led to, at the same time bringing some clarity to the country’s strategic purposes in and around Pakistan. Otherwise, distrust will not go away, both sides will assume the worst about each other; and the next crisis will continue to be round the corner.

The writer, a former ambassador, teaches at Georgetown and Johns Hopkins University.