stan-US relationship right now is at a crossroads. The way the two countries handle the current crisis will determine its nature and direction for a long time to come. It is true that the Pakistan-US relations have witnessed ups and downs in the past also. There was a time when Pakistan was the most allied ally of the United States during the cold war. But even during that period the relationship was not free of occasional strains and tensions such as those witnessed at the time of Pakistans decision to develop a strategic partnership with China in early 60s and in the aftermath of the 1965 Pakistan-India war. Pakistans nuclear programme became the cause of US sanctions in late 70s to be lifted when the US needed our cooperation in the Afghan jihad against the Soviet occupation. The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 led to the re-imposition of the US sanctions in 1990.
The current phase of Pakistan-US relations started after 9/11 when Pakistan under the US pressure reversed the flawed pro-Taliban policy, which it had pursued in the 1990s and agreed to provide bases and logistics facilities to America in its war against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Following the reversal of our pro-Taliban policy, an attempt was made by both Islamabad and Washington to convey the impression that there was total strategic alignment between the two countries. The factual situation, however, was otherwise. While Pakistan had agreed to join the US war against terrorism, there remained serious divergence of views between them on the situation in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, no serious attempt was made during Musharrafs rule or later under the present PPP-led government to reconcile these deep-seated differences concerning the war-torn country. Instead reliance was placed on media hype about the so-called close strategic relationship with the US to paper over these differences.
It was, therefore, inevitable that sooner or later the tensions caused by the Pakistan-US differences concerning Afghanistan will come to the fore and lead to a crisis in their relationship. The unilateral US Abbottabad operation to get Osama bin Laden in May this year, and the US/Nato helicopter attacks on our check posts on November 26 resulting in the martyrdom of our soldiers, have caused precisely the crisis that was feared by all serious observers of the Pakistan-US relations. While there is understandable anger on the part of Pakistan on account of the US/Nato attacks on our check posts, hopefully, it will enable us to understand the limitations of Pakistan-US relations and chart out a well-balanced policy concerning both America and Afghanistan.
It is in this perspective that one should welcome the declared government intention to carry out a review of the current status of Pakistan-US relations and evolve our US policy in our best national interest. What is important is that this exercise should be carried out on a realistic basis, so that the policy which is evolved is sustainable and in our best national interest. As a starting point of such a reappraisal, we should recognise both the potential and the limitations of our relations with the US. Despite its relative decline, especially in the economic field, the US remains the largest economy in the world. The US, which outspends the rest of the world in the military field, will also remain the most powerful nation militarily for quite some time to come, perhaps, well into the 21st century. From the point of view of scientific and technological advancement, it remains far ahead of the rest of the world. For the foreseeable future, therefore, the US will remain the most powerful nation in the world. It is, therefore, in our interest to maintain friendly relations and mutually beneficial cooperation with it.
There is a vast potential for cooperation with the US in political, economic, technical and military fields, which must be fully exploited. Both countries can cooperate to their mutual advantage in the struggle against international terrorism in the form of Al-Qaeda and its affiliated organisations. Pakistan-US cooperation is also a must for the restoration of durable peace and stability in Afghanistan. Washington further needs Pakistan as a voice for moderation in the Muslim world.
Finally, the US cannot afford to ignore Pakistan, which occupies an important strategic position at the crossroads of Central Asia, South Asia and West Asia, besides being a de facto nuclear power. It goes without saying that our friendship with it should not be at the expense of our national sovereignty and dignity or at the expense of our friendship with other countries, like China and Iran. The sine qua non of a dignified friendly relationship with the US is the policy of self-reliance. Our current practice of overdependence on the US for our economic and military needs militates against a dignified foreign policy to safeguard and promote our national interests.
Realism in our US policy requires that we must also be cognisant of the limitations of our friendship with it. For instance, it is well known that Washington wants to build up India as a world power to act as a counterweight to China in Asia. Pakistan neither has the desire, nor the capability to play such a role. Therefore, while India is part and parcel of the US grand strategic design for Asia, Pakistan is not. This explains Washingtons policy of de-hyphenating its relations with New Delhi and Islamabad and according India a higher strategic value than that given to Pakistan in its calculations. This also explains why Washington has entered into a civilian nuclear cooperation with India, despite the severe blow delivered by it to the international nuclear non-proliferation regime through its nuclear explosions of May 1998, while rejecting such cooperation with Pakistan. Other factors such as the biased US policy in favour of Israel as against the Palestinians and its current animosity toward Iran may also circumscribe and limit our cooperation with the US. Even on the issue of terrorism, there are differences between the US and Pakistan strategies, despite their firm commitment to combat it.
Differences between the Afghanistan policies of Pakistan and the US, however, are the main source of the current tensions between them. The two countries must reconcile these differences to strengthen their friendship and cooperation. Washington must understand that it cannot impose a government of its choice on Afghanistan in disregard of the wishes and the cultural traditions of the vast majority of the Afghan people. The peace process in Afghanistan must be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned. Secondly, it must rely on political initiatives, rather than military means alone to achieve its objectives in Afghanistan. Thirdly, reconciliation among various Afghan groups whether Taliban or non-Taliban and ethnic communities whether Pakhtuns or non-Pakhtuns is an essential condition for durable peace and stability in Afghanistan. The multi-ethnic character of the Afghan society calls for a broad-based government in the interest of durable peace. The withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan will have to be an essential element of any peace settlement in the country. Finally, any political settlement in Afghanistan must enjoy the support of its neighbours, particularly Pakistan and Iran. At the same time, Pakistan must refrain from the blunders of its pro-Taliban policy of the 1990s when it alienated most of the non-Pakhtun communities in Afghanistan. It remains to be seen whether our government has the wisdom and the courage to convey this position to Washington unambiguously. Until it does so and until the differences between Washington and Islamabad are reconciled, the Pakistan-US relationship will remain a troubled one prone to frequent crises.
The writer is a retired ambassador.