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The US is the new India

April 15, 2012

IF there were a Sigmund Freud of international relations, he’d probably ask, ‘What does Pakistan want?’

The trajectories of Pakistan’s two critical relationships — with India and the US — in recent months suggest that we like to keep things complicated, very complicated.

For just as we start to approach the relationship with India more rationally, the US becomes the new India and we plunge that relationship into yet more incoherence and uncertainty.

It’s the same set of principals here, so why are they producing such different outcomes?

The army still dominates the national security and foreign policy domains but there is also the political government, the Foreign Office and a loose-knit group of security and foreign-policy experts who help shape policy.

What’s causing them to collectively choose such different paths, where the decades-old Enemy No 1 gets deepening trade and investment ties while a damaging clash over red lines with the US — on drones, for example — leaves everyone wondering where a vital trade and security relationship is headed?

There’s no Freud to help out here, so guesswork will have to suffice.

Start with India. The security establishment hasn’t suddenly unlearned all that it believed to be true about Indian policymakers and warriors for decades.

But the series of crises that rocked the army leadership last year created a small window of opportunity here. Uncertain and unsure, the army was more amenable to being convinced to do things it may have been reluctant to green-light before.

There have been similar moments in the past, but nobody to take advantage of them. This time, there was a tenacious and committed commerce secretary and a political government eager to improve ties with India.

So they pushed hard and it started to yield results. Notice how virtually every other subject in the ‘full-spectrum dialogue’ has meandered along without much progress. Trade and investment got a bigger, more concerted push and hence the breakthroughs.

It helped that the army’s own security prism was changing. Realising that Pakistan had fallen significantly behind India in economic terms and that strategic competition with India will be more and more expensive in the years and decades ahead, the army is also more amenable to new ideas.

Perhaps key to it all is that India is a well-understood problem. It’s such an old adversary, the contours of disagreement and avenues for conflict so well understood, that Pakistan can be confident there are few surprises in store. If India tries anything funny, Pakistan can quickly respond, the thinking would be.

Contrast this with the relationship with the US, where there’s so much more room for uncertainty and doubt.

Take the drones. The Americans themselves are figuring out the potential of the rapidly evolving technology. The first strike in 2004 already seems like another era. By 2008, the system’s capacity was up to nearly a dozen strikes a month and didn’t have to rely as much on Pakistani intelligence input.

An acceptance here behind the scenes of the inevitability of some strikes combined with frequent public denunciation of the strikes is an approach borne out of fear and uncertainty. What if a strike every other day became the norm? The Americans could then press to expand the area of operation. To date, an overwhelming majority of the strikes have occurred in the Waziristan agencies.

From there, they could expand to include the other tribal agencies more regularly, then to the settled districts adjoining the tribal areas and before you know it, the outskirts of Quetta or the sprawling shantytowns of Karachi could be targeted.

So opposing the inevitable — intermittent drone strikes in Fata — could help prevent the unknown — the raining down of missiles all over Pakistani territory.

And because drones are politically unpopular, there’s no one in the other policy camps to try and placate the army’s fears and convince them to try a different tack, as has happened on trade with India.

Another example: the future of Afghanistan. There are increasing signs that the Pakistan Army understands that it can’t dominate Afghanistan via Pakhtun proxies and keep that country isolated from the outside world like it did in the 1990s.

A nominal centre with the present configuration of power in the regions more or less adhered to and semi-guaranteed by outside powers, that makes the most sense for Afghanistan.

But the security establishment here believes that the main work needs to be done in Afghanistan first. Without a workable framework for a post-war future in Afghanistan, it doesn’t make sense for Pakistan to put its cards on the table or to make any concessions at this point.

Unlike the relationship with India, the relationship with the US is characterised by too many unknowns and too much uncertainty about what will happen even two or three years down the road.

Uncertainty causes the security establishment here to go into a defensive position and treat with great suspicion anything that could blow up in their face. The India problem is well understood. Nobody can claim for sure what Afghanistan will look like several years from now.

The army may not be thrilled about trade with India but has assessed that it will not undermine Pakistan’s position on ‘core issues’ and that it could be beneficial for our sluggish economy. So the push by the civilian apparatus, bureaucratic and political, is yielding results.

With the US, while everyone in policymaking circles agrees that the relationship cannot be allowed to break down, the army is filled with uncertainty about how to proceed; there are too many variables in play at the moment; and the civilians neither have the resolve nor the understanding to push for potentially game-changing options.

So that’s the difference. What Pakistan wants is to feel like it knows what it’s agreeing to.

The writer is a member of staff.

cyril.a@gmail.com

twitter: @cyalm