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Ties after US polls

November 11, 2012

PRESIDENT Barack Obama has won a second term in the White House. According to a recent survey of major Muslim countries, Pakistan was the only country where people did not show a clear preference for this outcome.

The majority sentiment, also reflected in a number of opinion pieces in the Pakistani press since, is that the Nov 6 US elections were irrelevant to the future of the US-Pakistan relationship. Pakistanis expect ‘business as usual’ in the near to medium term.

The view is correct in as much as the election result per se will not alter ties. Moreover, as far as I can tell, no immediate policy transformation on Pakistan is in the offing in Washington.

That said, absence of a transformation is not the same thing as business as usual. The precise direction of the relationship in the coming months and years is difficult to predict but there are a number of developments that are certain to affect the status quo in varying degrees. Both sides would do well to be prepared to deal with these.

Let us visit some of the upcoming developments that led me to this conclusion.

First, even though the US presidency and the control of the Senate and House of Representatives have not changed in the Nov 6 elections, one can expect a change of guard at key US government positions dealing with Pakistan.

It is very common in the US system for turnover to occur in a fresh term of a president. For one, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has already announced her departure. CIA director David Petraeus also quit last week. Other positions relevant to Pakistan may see new personnel move in.

To be sure, US systems are institutionalised in a way that policies tend to outlast individuals. But individuals do matter. By definition, new teams tend to have slightly different engagement styles and priorities and may take some time to adjust to Islamabad’s negotiation behaviour (and vice versa).

In Pakistan, the election season is round the corner. Between now and March-April, when elections are likely to take place, the focus is going to shift to internal politics. The relationship with the US will be part of the election rhetoric but there is going to be less and less time to deal with substantive issues around it.

Quite frankly, this may be a window of opportunity. With the attention in Pakistan diverted from US-bashing, it may well provide an opening for the two militaries to make quiet progress on contentious issues such as the safe havens on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The civilian strategic dialogue groups may also find space to regain momentum without making controversial headlines.

The direction of the relationship after the Pakistani elections is not easy to foresee. A return of the present coalition or for that matter a PML-N-led coalition will probably allow for more of the same in terms of Pakistani policy.

But if the elections bring to power a PTI-led government, a more nationalistic take on affairs will be on display. At the very least, there will be quite a learning curve as teams on both sides will be working with each other for the first time. It will not be easy given that the PTI is not naturally inclined to warm up to their US interlocutors; the feeling about Imran Khan in Washington is not too upbeat either.

Again, this is not to say that the fundamentals of the relationship would necessarily change. But its tenor and tone certainly will — and there is always a chance that confrontational diplomacy forces both sides to lose sight of the more important substantive issues.

Then comes the mother of all changes: the 2014 security and political transition in Afghanistan.

Anyone who feels that this will not alter the Pakistan-US partnership must revisit ground realities. The change will begin even before 2014 rolls around.

It will start becoming increasingly clear by the end of the 2013 fighting season in Afghanistan whether Islamabad and Washington have managed to complement each other’s strategies to target safe havens and promote the goal of Afghan reconciliation. If yes, this will open up the possibility for a slightly more degraded Taliban accepting a compromise and allowing for a relatively peaceful security transition.

If on the other hand, their divergence remains intact, or if matters inside Afghanistan start going horribly wrong (whether due to a spoiling role by Afghanistan’s neighbours or a rigged and discredited Afghan presidential election), I expect a much more vocal and direct blame game between Islamabad and Washington as both seek to point out the other as the cause for failure. Pakistan, with its already negative perception in most world capitals, will be quickly isolated.

Finally, what comes after 2014 will depend on which of these two scenarios — a convergent Pakistan-US stance or an open blame game — play out.

To be sure, US concern about terrorism and nuclear weapons in Pakistan will keep Washington engaged. A 1989-type disassociation, after the Soviet withdrawal, is unlikely. But this concern could play out in positive, negative or an ugly manner.

The range of options for US policy could go from an increase in aid and counterterrorism cooperation (in the positive scenario) to more conditional civilian and military aid, to a cut-off of military aid, to ending all aid, to punishment through minor sanctions and/or closer alignment with Pakistan’s adversaries in the region. Depending on what ensues, one could see fewer drones or even more of them flying over an expanded area.

Pakistan, on its part, could respond by sticking to its traditional strategic paradigm even at the cost of condemnation from the US and by seeking new partners to buffer itself against the US. If things work out for the better however, it could find increasing stability in Afghanistan to be a welcome change and seek to keep good ties with US, China and India simultaneously while working to pacify militants of all shades.

The Pakistan-US relationship in 2015 is sure to look far more different than it does today. Remaining complacent about the potential impacts of the upcoming events and developments may force both sides towards the undesirable scenario. They must not let this happen.

The writer is South Asia adviser at the US Institute of Peace, Washington, D.C.