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New rules: how effective?

March 25, 2012


THE long-delayed new policy framework unveiled by Senator Raza Rabbani last week seeks to redefine the post-9/11 security relationship between Pakistan and the US, laying down new rules of engagement.

It proposes to build future cooperation on written undertakings, indicating a departure from the past practice of secret deals and sets a new paradigm for transactional ties rather than an illusionary strategic partnership.

Indeed, the resetting of policy will help restore ties between the two countries. But some major fault lines remain unresolved. Bilateral relations cannot be fixed unilaterally. There is need for a clear understanding between the two sides even for transactional relations to work.

Predictably, the recommendations call for terminating the drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas, reducing the US intelligence and military presence and taxing Nato supplies to Afghanistan. But no clear line is drawn defining the limits to which the interests of the two countries converge.

There is no word on why it is important for Pakistan to continue cooperation with America. It gives the impression that in effect we are mainly interested in obtaining more money for our services rather than building a relationship based on mutual interests.

One of the demands in the recommendations is that Pakistan Railways should handle 50 per cent of Nato supplies to Afghanistan. Such issues should be negotiated between the two countries and not be a part of a policy framework. Similar is the case of levying Nato supply trucks.

The aim of the policy reframing is said to make ties more transparent and minimise the American footprint in Pakistan. That sounds well-meaning, but the recommendations offer no answer to how they can be implemented. Populist rhetoric and abstract slogans about national sovereignty and self-reliance are no substitute for policy; they only dilute the seriousness of the debate.

The demand for an unqualified apology on the Salala killings is also no more than political point-scoring as the Obama administration has already agreed to do so.

In fact, the apology was to come at a press conference by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after her meeting with Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar in London last month. But it was postponed on the request of the Pakistani government that it should be delivered after the parliamentary session.

It is a positive move to involve parliament in the debate and to create a consensus on an important national security issue, but it is mainly the government’s responsibility to formulate a policy and not parliament’s. The involvement of a parliamentary committee in reframing the policy has only fuelled confusion. Why were the recommendations kept secret if they were to be debated in parliament?

The reframing of terms of engagement had become imperative as the differences between the two countries on key regional strategic issues had become increasingly irresoluble.

Ironies abound in the alliance between Pakistan and the US which emerged after 9/11. While Pakistan’s cooperation was critical for the US in the war against Al Qaeda, there was no convergence of long-term strategic interests. The gap widened as the war in Afghanistan spilled over inside Pakistan’s northern border regions.Mired in mutual distrust, the two sides have substantial differences of opinion about the appropriate strategy in Afghanistan and how to deal with the wider insurgency. Ties turned toxic with successive incidents last year starting with the Raymond Davis episode. Tensions further heightened with the unilateral action by the Obama administration to kill Osama bin Laden who stayed in the garrison town of Abbottabad undetected by Pakistani intelligence for five years.

The final blow came after the Nov 26 strike at the Salala check post by US helicopter gunships, widely seen by the military as a deliberate act of aggression.

Since then, US-Pakistan ties have been in the deep freeze. There has not been any high-level US visit to Pakistan and the two border crossings through which 80 per cent of the supplies to Nato forces in Afghanistan is routed have been shut since November.

The freeze in ties has provided a cooling period, allowing both partners to take a step back and adopt a more pragmatic approach. Both sides have many reasons to avoid a complete rupture in ties. For the US the support of Pakistan is critical as it struggles to broker an endgame to the war in Afghanistan.

It is also in the interest of Pakistan to help the US reach a political settlement in Afghanistan which could allow the coalition forces an orderly exit. It is not surprising that despite the freeze Pakistan actively backed the US-Taliban negotiations. Though at much smaller scale, intelligence cooperation also continued.

But to maintain even a transactional relationship the two sides will have to come to some compromise balancing Pakistan’s sovereignty concerns and US security interests. A major source of friction with the US are the drone strikes. Pakistan’s position on the issue has hardened as it sets new rules of engagement with the US. The recommendations said Pakistan would not tolerate any more use of drones on its territory. But there is no indication that the Obama administration would agree to stop the drone campaign against the militants taking sanctuary in the tribal areas. In fact, the attacks have been resumed after a two-month hiatus, to Pakistan’s annoyance.

The most aggressive operation that the CIA has been involved in to date has killed several senior Al Qaeda operatives and thrown the terrorist network into disarray. But the success of the campaign, and the larger success and wisdom of the current US strategy, remain questionable. As the strikes have caused an increasing number of civilian deaths public anger has surged.

Pakistan has limited options as US continues the drone campaign ignoring the demand of the Pakistani parliament. This presents a serious dilemma for the Pakistani government as it seeks to reset the rules of engagement with the US.

The writer is a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre, Washington DC.