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Fresh start awaited

April 05, 2012

THE American and Pakistani states appear to move in mysterious ways. US Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides came to the capital with a message for Pakistani officials: the Pakistan-US relationship is vital and it is in both countries’ interests to reboot it soon. Unfortunately for Mr Nides, the US has been in the news for all the wrong reasons in Pakistan this week with the peculiar announcement of a $10m bounty for Jamaat-ud-Dawa/Lashkar-e-Taiba leader Hafiz Saeed. A rather blatant pressure tactic, the American move also has the potential to backfire: the forces holding up the normalisation of ties with the US now have yet more ammunition to argue that the US is no friend of Pakistan and what it really seeks is an alliance with India to try and squeeze Pakistan. Growing frustration or someone’s idea of a calculated risk may have been behind the move against Hafiz Saeed but better sense should have prevailed. Then again, better sense only rarely seems to prevail in Pakistan-US relations of late.

On the Pakistani side, the temptation to play to the galleries and rant about defiance of the US will still be strong. But it has been, is and will always remain a bad idea. Pakistani politicians are notorious for saying one thing behind closed doors and something quite different in public. Be it fecklessness or an opportunistic streak that seeks to be on the right side of public opinion whatever the cost, Pakistani politicians have just not been able to tell the truth to the people, the ones whose interests they ostensibly represent. The truth is this: by closing the supply lines to Afghanistan, in boycotting Bonn and by succumbing to sundry other emotional responses since last November, Pakistan has put itself dangerously close to being definitively regarded as part of the problem in the ‘Af-Pak’ region and not part of the solution.

It’s not just the US that Pakistan has challenged, the mission in Afghanistan is still an international one and from Nato countries to other powerful states, all have a desire to prevent Afghanistan from descending into chaos and civil war again. Pakistan really cannot afford to be on the wrong side of that equation.

The problem is, with elections on the horizon and the right-wing mobilised and baying for blood, mainstream parties will not want to be seen to take the lead in restarting relations with the US, a relationship that is immensely unpopular after the active cultivation of anti-US sentiment over the years. Perhaps they may want to think about doing it in the national interest, the real, not perceived, one.