Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent visit to Pakistan brought home once again both the indispensable character of the Pak-US relationship and its limitations. The two countries have convergence of interests in many areas such as regional peace and stability, a peaceful Afghanistan that is free of al-Qaeda, the fight against international terrorism, Pakistan’s development and growth as a constructive and a moderate force in the region, the OIC and the world at large, non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, and the possibilities of mutual cooperation in economic, commercial and technical fields. These areas contain vast opportunities for mutual cooperation between the two countries, which should not be ignored or underestimated. The economic and military assistance provided by the US to Pakistan currently is just one concrete example of the benefits of Pak-US friendship.
This is not to deny, however, that the Pak-US relationship also suffers from serious divergence of views and positions on several important issues. These differences set definite limits to the development of Pak-US relations. Wisdom demands that the two countries should be mindful of both the possibilities and the limitations of the development of this relationship.
The US must realise that its efforts to force policy decisions on Islamabad, which are seen by its government and the people to be at variance with Pakistan’s best interests will embitter Pak-US relations and prove to be counter-productive in the long run. On the other hand, Pakistan must realise that the regional and international security environment closely circumscribes the limits within which Washington can extend cooperation to it in overcoming the serious internal and external challenges it faces. We must not, therefore, attach exaggerated expectations to the resumption of the Pak-US strategic dialogue. Above all, our leaders and policymakers must understand that the solutions of our problems lie in our own hands. No amount of external help can be an adequate substitute for our own efforts to resolve our internal and external problems.
Even a cursory glance at the regional and international security environment is sufficient to bring out the limitations from which Pak-US relations currently suffer. To begin with, Pakistan is not a part of the US grand design for Asia, which aims at the containment of China so that it does not pose a challenge to its strategic interests in Asia or at the global level. Since the end of the Cold War, it has been the primary aim of the US grand strategy to prevent the emergence of a rival power on any continent of the world. China because of its huge size, its rapid economic rise and the growth in its military muscle can pose a challenge to the US supremacy, probably, in the second half of the 21st century, if it is able to maintain its high rate of economic growth and increase its military strength correspondingly.
Washington is, therefore, currently engaged in shoring up its alliances with the countries on China’s periphery and rebalancing its forces towards the Asia-Pacific region. Its declared aim to help build up India as a major power of the 21st century to act as a counterweight to China is an important element of its strategy to contain the latter. Pakistan obviously lacks both the capability and the desire to play such a role. In fact, Pakistan sees in China a strategic partner to safeguard its national security. This factor alone would put severe limits on Pak-US cooperation.
The conflicting views of Washington and Islamabad on the situation in Afghanistan are a major irritant in the relations between the two countries, as shown by the disruptive events of 2011, the continuing drone attacks and policy differences concerning the Taliban. Fortunately, the US and Pakistan now seem to agree on the need for national reconciliation as a necessary condition for a peaceful, stable and al-Qaeda-free Afghanistan. But there are still wide differences of views between them on handling the Afghan Taliban whose inclusion and integration in the post-2014 political order is an indispensable condition for durable peace and stability in the war-torn country.
It is strange that Washington wants Pakistan to use its influence to bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table for a political settlement in Afghanistan and, at the same time, expects it to take military action against them. The fact of the matter is that such military operations in the past made Pakistan the target of terrorist attacks, while relieving, to some extent, the US forces and their allies in Afghanistan of the burden of fighting the Afghan Taliban.
But fighting the Afghan Taliban, who despite their obscurantist and retrogressive views constitute an important segment of the Afghan political spectrum, should not be confused with the fight against al-Qaeda or international terrorism.
Ideally, the US should now focus on facilitating a dialogue among the various Afghan parties, including, inter alia, the Taliban, for national reconciliation and a political settlement in Afghanistan free of foreign interference.
Iran’s nuclear programme and the current difficulties in US-Iran relations may be another source of discord between Washington and Islamabad. Secretary Kerry during the visit, reportedly, maintained a tough stance on the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project, which is necessary to meet Pakistan’s growing energy requirements. Similarly, there are differences of views between the US and Pakistan on the issue of Palestine.
Pakistan has historically extended strong support to the just cause of the Palestinians as against the unjustified support of the US to Israeli acts of aggression, settlement policy and violations of the UN resolutions. Pakistan cannot give up its support to the Palestinian cause without weakening its principled position on the Kashmir dispute. Further, Pakistan will find it difficult to accept the US suggestions relating to South Asia, which aim at turning it into an appendage of the Indian economy or a satellite of India in the service of the US grand design for Asia.
In view of these differences, Kerry’s visit to Pakistan produced mixed results. The two countries agreed to resume their strategic dialogue to develop the bilateral relationship and President Barack Obama’s invitation to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to visit Washington later this year was conveyed by Kerry. But he refused to give any assurance of an immediate end to the drone strikes, while hinting at the possibility of ending them as the threat of “terrorism” is eliminated. Kerry also told Pakistan firmly to tackle the issue of “cross-border militancy”, which he termed as a key aspect of the strategic dialogue.
The task facing the governments of Pakistan and the US is to remain engaged so as to expand the areas of mutually beneficial cooperation and minimise the adverse impact of their differences on the relations between the two countries through mutual understanding and accommodation of each other’s views. Walking away from each other is not a viable option for Pakistan or the US. However, Pakistan’s ability to manage this relationship in its best interest would be inversely proportional to its dependence on the US.
The writer is a retired ambassador and the president of the Lahore Council for World Affairs.