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The bigger picture

March 05, 2012

AFTER two delays, the joint session of parliament to review US-Pakistan ties has once again been scheduled for March 17.

The postponements have allowed ample time for back-channel negotiations between Islamabad and Washington, and for brainstorming sessions such as last week’s high-level moot at the presidency and previous meetings of the Parliamentary Committee on National Security (PCNS).

One hopes that the powers that be put a lot of thought into the review. While the joint session’s agenda is frequently boiled down to the single point of whether or not to reopen Nato supply lines, there is far more at stake. A thoughtful review and consequent paradigm shift in US-Pakistan relations could go a long way towards clarifying a national vision for Pakistan and setting medium-term policy priorities. This would not be a consequence of American diktat, but because in choosing how Pakistan deals with the US, the government will necessarily make related decisions about the national and economic trajectory.

The trickles of information from PCNS meetings have not been encouraging in this regard. Debate seems to be focused on the Nato supply lines, with Pakistan seeking an apology from Washington for the Salala attack and higher fees in exchange for reopening the border. These tit-for-tat demands betray, reactive thinking that does not get at the bigger issues of the (dis)advantages of a continued partnership with the US, or the regional fallout of a diplomatic break.

No doubt, an official US apology will help boost army morale, but major decisions about the bilateral relationship cannot be made in an emotionally charged environment. Nor should the review collapse into a petty attempt to get yet more cash out of the Americans. Our parliamentarians must instead see the review as a vital opportunity to insert pragmatism and long-term thinking into foreign policymaking.

In the past year, attempts to see eye-to-eye in the context of the Afghan conflict have dominated the US-Pakistan relationship.

Pakistan has largely articulated its stance on Afghanistan, identifying the following wish list: Pathan (in this case Taliban) participation at the centre following a political reconciliation process; minimal Indian presence on the ground, particularly in connection with the Afghan National Army; continued international support for the Afghan economy, a more sustainable model for the Afghan Nation Security Forces. Implicit in this wish list are Pakistan’s expectations of the US, as a guarantor against Indian presence in Afghanistan and a backer of its artificially inflated economy. The US has yet to coherently acknowledge, engage or provide viable alternatives for this wish list. But progress in this context will not magically resolve the US-Pakistan conundrum — the bilateral relationship does not start and end with Afghanistan.

In January, Pakistan’s finance minister warned of the economic fallout of strained ties with the US. He pointed out that the US government could use its clout with international finance institutions such as the World Bank and IMF to jeopardise Pakistan’s economy. This dimension was further complicated recently when the US threatened sanctions if Islamabad went ahead with the planned Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline.

In the interests of pursuing an independent foreign policy, and in light of the energy crisis, Pakistan’s commitment to the pipeline makes sense. But what about the bigger picture? Can Pakistan’s economy handle US sanctions? Can Islamabad hope to work with Washington on Afghanistan if it works against it on Iran?

How Pakistan defines its relationship with the US will thus impact other considerations, economic and regional. On Iran, for example, Pakistan must carefully calibrate its position: on one hand, Islamabad needs strong ties with Tehran to promote energy and trade deals, and jointly address sectarian militancy. On the other, Pakistan cannot stand by Iran if it blocks the Strait of Hormuz, thereby straining Pakistan’s economy along with others, or if it responds to international pressure by sparking sectarian militancy across the region.

Pakistan cannot replace a coherent Iran policy with a defiant stance against the US vis-à-vis the pipeline. Knee-jerk attempts to stymie US policy initiatives do not count as an independent foreign policy, a fact the joint parliamentary session must embrace.

The problem is, on most of these matters Pakistan now hopes to defer to — or ally with — China. But Islamabad should have learnt by now that there is nothing to be gained from taking directives from superpowers. The killing of a Chinese woman in Peshawar last week was a reminder that as Pakistan’s security situation deteriorates, its relationship with China will inevitably become securitised. Soon Beijing will be asking us to ‘do more’ to fight domestic militancy while using Pakistani transport routes for its own gain and shelling out aid in the form of infrastructure projects to keep Islamabad pliant. Does that sound familiar?

Ultimately, any review of how Pakistan frames its relations with the US must address Islamabad’s medium-term plans for engagement with New Delhi. Pakistan can ‘absorb the shocks’ of minimising or severing ties with the US only if it normalises relations with India. The decision to boost trade ties with India by phasing out restrictions on Indian imports within the year is a good start. But more is needed. Closer cooperation and transparency regarding Pakistan and India’s goals in Afghanistan will help ease tensions while generating regionally palatable solutions to the conflict that necessarily sideline American influence.

The fact is, the simultaneously anti-US and anti-India stance, which reflects the public mood and has thus been taken up by the Difaa-i-Pakistan Council, is untenable. Pakistan must make some tough foreign policy choices if it hopes to remain economically viable and avoid diplomatic isolation. If made correctly, those choices could transform Pakistan’s medium-term prospects for stability and prosperity. Let’s hope the PCNS does not defer the matter again.

The writer is a freelance journalist.