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Engage or punish?

Published May 27, 2012 12:10am

THE thing about Pakistanis is that we’re too sure of our assumptions.

The Americans need us to withdraw from Afghanistan. We’re convinced of it. So we act out.

We fixate on an apology. Give us one, you’ve given Afghanistan two already, we say.

We haggle over transit fees. You’ve held up our money in other areas, so we’ll make up the difference through the supply route, thank you very much, we think cleverly.

We wallow in victimhood. All these people we’ve lost and damage we’ve sustained over the last decade, why doesn’t the world acknowledge our sacrifices, we rail.

We chuck a hapless doctor in prison because it makes us look tough in front of the folks at home who thought May 2 made us look weak.

We flirt with breaking our self-imposed moratorium on enforcing the death penalty because we’re too incompetent to do anything systematically. Never mind those Europeans with their trade concessions and their obsession with rights.

We turn up at Chicago without a plan and are miffed when the world spurns us.

Pakistan: the country that can do what it wants because it’s too important to be set aside.

Get tough with the US, bargain harder, dig in our heels — and the Americans, along with the other countries that matter, will eventually acquiesce.

Except that’s not how the debate is shaping up on the other side of the table.

There it’s largely: engage Pakistan or punish Pakistan?

The engage camp is on the defensive: where’s the proof that engaging Pakistan produces the results that the outside world seeks?

Chicago is the most recent example. Offer Pakistan an unconditional invitation and it may lead to some flexibility at the transit-route negotiating table, the moderates would have thought.

So they did invite us. And in return Pakistan trotted out Sherry Rehman and Bilawal to demand once more a non-negotiable apology. Cue more consternation and dismay.

Engagement suffers because the two sides have different clocks: the West needs to get out of Afghanistan and figure out how to stabilise it over the new few years; Pakistan thinks it can take its time making up its mind and putting its house in order because, well, what’s the hurry?

But if the engage camp is on the defensive, the punish-Pakistan camp hasn’t won the argument either — yet.

The reason goes back to the fact that the US and its allies still want stuff from Pakistan.

The US military still wants us to do something about the sanctuaries on this side of the Pak-Afghan border. And politically, the outside world is looking to Pakistan to at least nudge the insurgents it has some influence with in Afghanistan towards the negotiating table.

The problem for the punishment camp is that theirs too is just a theory: if the engage camp can’t prove their approach works, it’s not clear how a strategy of punishment will cause Pakistan to change its behaviour either.

Say Pakistan needs to go back to the IMF later this year. Between the US and the Europeans, if they want they could scuttle a deal with the IMF to punish Pakistan. Suddenly, Pakistan would be in a lot more trouble economically.

But who gets hurt straightaway? Not Kayani, not Zardari, not Hafeez Pasha or Zaheerul Islam but the public at large.

Or say there’s another Salala-type attack. Wounding this army’s pride further and stoking anti-Americanism aren’t exactly a recipe for success with Pakistan.

So, frustrating as the engagement route is, the punishment route doesn’t exactly offer a road map for success.

But the problem Pakistan forgets is that when one strategy doesn’t work, it only helps the argument for trying another one.

The more and more we prove that engagement doesn’t ultimately work when it comes to Pakistan, the more people dealing with this country will look for alternatives.

And the alternative, the punishment strategy, for all its untested assumptions and uncertain possibility of success, does have some powerful backers.

In fact, put your ear close to the ground and you’ll even hear the moderates admitting that they wake up some days and wonder whether the hawks are right on Pakistan.

It won’t even have to happen all at once. First could come neglect, then isolation and then containment.

The difficulty for Pakistan is that the decision to switch from engagement to something more detrimental for this country could occur while we’re still under the impression that engagement will continue. The warning signs will be there, of course, though you’d have to be looking for them.

But a false sense of security, and perhaps even superiority — as the Shakil Afridi case suggests — wouldn’t exactly be something new for Pakistan.

If there’s a ray of hope, it’s that Pakistan still isn’t the focus of the US and its allies; Afghanistan is.

Pakistan is still seen through the prism of war and stability in Afghanistan and discussions about Pakistan sans Afghanistan tend to get tacked on to the end of the agenda.

When — if — that changes, almost certainly not before the US presidential election in November, the engage-Pakistan camp can make a more convincing case: Pakistan is a country of 180 million people; its Muslim population is an important plank of the Islamic world; it exists in a strategically important part of the world, with China, India and Central Asia nearby; and it has nuclear weapons — ergo, not engaging Pakistan isn’t an option.

The trouble is, policymakers here haven’t quite caught on to the seriousness of the debate internationally when it comes to dealing with Pakistan.

If the engage-Pakistan camp is to prevail against punish-Pakistan camp, it’ll need help from Pakistan in the shape of some kind of behavioural change or signals that at least some adjustments are imminent — precisely the kind of help we aren’t providing because we think they aren’t necessary.

Pakistan: too sure of its assumptions and too scared to tread a different path.

The writer is a member of staff.

cyril.a@gmail.com

twitter: @cyalm