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Things looking up

December 23, 2012

IN terms of foreign relationships, Pakistan has been in a rather peculiar position over the past decade. It is a frontline ally in the global coalition against terrorism. Yet, it is acutely distrusted by most of the global power centres and some have even characterised it as the problem child of South Asia.

And so, even as it remains an integral part of the anti-terrorism campaign, it often finds itself under the scanner. The US and a number of other countries have had no qualms about expressing their frustrations with Pakistan, and often hinting at the need for sterner measures against Islamabad.

The 2008-2011 period was exceptionally difficult with Pakistan squarely on the back foot after the Mumbai attacks, dwindling fortunes in Afghanistan (given that it was being seen as the problem there), an unprecedented spike in terrorist violence at home and a series of spectacular episodes in 2011 that embarrassed both the state and citizens of Pakistan.

While most may remember 2012 principally as a year dominated by tensions between Pakistan and the US, there is a very different interpretation in order: this year is ending more positively for Pakistani foreign policy and for developments in the region than the past five years. Notwithstanding the fact that much is still left to be desired in absolute terms, Islamabad and Washington deserve credit for where they are today. Few would have predicted that regional developments would gather positive momentum after a dismal 2011 and the first half of 2012.

And it is not just Pakistan and the US; we are seeing simultaneous gains on Pakistan’s eastern and western flanks.

With India, which is more important than any other relationship in terms of being a potential game changer for Pakistan’s future, we are at the highest point since the composite dialogue stalled in 2008.

For hawks on the Pakistani side, the trajectory is not entirely comforting since betterment in ties is essentially taking place on terms India had wanted for years: defer Kashmir, Siachen and other disputes but move forward on trade and soft exchanges.

Is this way forward ‘fair’, normatively speaking? No, since Pakistan will be meeting India more than half way. But as overwhelming empirical evidence from other cases of enduring rivalries suggests, when military solutions are unavailable and the stronger party is satisfied with the status quo, the weaker, revisionist power has to concede more to break the logjam.

If the goal is better India-Pakistan ties — premised on the logic that this will improve Pakistan’s economic fortunes which the country’s internal weakness suggests are more urgent than they have been for some time — then this is the most realistic way forward. India simply does not have the type of compulsions to compromise that Pakistan does. Indeed, in the multitude of Track 1.5 and II meetings I have attended in recent years, there is nothing that tells me that the Indians will go out of their way to accommodate Pakistan on disputes.

If Pakistan does not have the luxury to wait it out, it holds that a move to grant India MFN, for India to reduce its non-tariff barriers, laxer investment regimes, movement on visas, etc. are more encouraging signs than hoping for compromise solutions on the disputes. I find Pakistan’s current level of expectation from India more realistic than 2007, when statements about a Kashmir resolution being imminent were making the news.

On the Pakistan-US-Afghanistan trio, we have gone from a point just months ago where Washington and Islamabad were hardly talking, to a situation where the tendency of publicly rebuking each other is visibly in check, where Kabul has reportedly prepared a plan that accords Pakistan its much-desired ‘central’ role in the reconciliation process, and where, judging by press reports in the West, there is a sudden spike in stories praising Pakistan’s efforts after all.

The change on all sides is driven primarily by the fact that time has all but run out on Afghanistan’s endgame. It has been true for some time that Kabul and the major external actors, including Pakistan, have wanted a semblance of stability in Afghanistan.

However, they were caught up in a prisoner’s dilemma that did not allow them to implement a joint strategy on the way forward. Ironically, the threat of a total breakdown of order in Afghanistan is now so real and near that it has literally forced them to change tack.

This does imply that the improvement in Pakistan-US and Pakistan-Afghanistan relations is reversible. Should they fail to assure some kind of political deal that holds a fragmented and fragile Afghanistan together, the default will likely be a return to the blame game, with repercussions for their post-2014 relations. I suspect this may well end up being the case. But as we have it today, the situation must be seen as a measure of success of each side’s diplomatic acumen.

This may also be the point to recognise just how difficult it must have been for the diplomats tasked to steer the situation in a positive direction. The thaw in the Pakistan-US relationship was necessary to get the ball rolling again. Here, what doesn’t always make public news are the tireless efforts that have gone on in both the Islamabad and Washington embassies to work through the post-Salala phase.

The fundamental differences have not gone away, nor has the deep mistrust on both sides. But to keep working on exploiting commonalities in the worst of times, as they did, to have come around to new ways of dealing with troubling narratives about each other in such a short time and to have managed key substantive concessions from the other (this has happened on both sides since the summer) without losing track of respective national interests deserve special mention.

In Washington where I have a better vantage point, the discernible shift in the way Pakistan is being mentioned is quite remarkable. The individual relationships that diplomats in both capitals have cemented over the past few months will be extremely valuable as we look to produce more diplomatic victories for all sides over the next two years.

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