The Pak-US relations have gone through cycles of warm engagement to cold estrangement. Interestingly, these relations were usually warm during military dictatorships in Pakistan, even though the US leaders always paid lip service to democratic norms. This highlights two cold realities of international relations. Firstly, these relations are governed by convergence or divergence of national interests. Secondly, some gap could always be expected between policies and postures. I believe that Pak-US relations are vital for a variety of reasons and we must set emotionalism aside while dealing with the superpower.
Firstly, Pakistan and the United States look at China, India and Iran differently. Pakistan looks at China as a future superpower that could bring stability to the region. It could counterbalance the US and Indian hegemonic designs in Asia and Pacific. The United States appears to be following a policy of containment towards China and wants to use India as a means towards that objective. Whether India would play ball with the United States is yet not clear.
The US also wants India to lead Asia and Pacific. It has not realised the limitations of this policy, as both China and Japan would have their reservations for India is not a country of the Pacific Ocean. It also wants India to play a major role in Afghanistan and Central Asia. For that to happen, it is essential that Indian goods move freely to the Central Asian markets and that is not possible without Pakistani cooperation. For that reason, the United States desires a Pakistan that panders to India. The US looks at Iran as a lethal component of the ‘Axis of Evil’, while Pakistan looks at that country as a brotherly neighbouring Islamic nation. Pakistan also views Iran as a vital source of its future energy needs.
The United States views Indian and Pakistani nuclear programmes differently. Through its nuclear deal with India in 2006, Washington recognised it as a de jure nuclear power. However, it has reservations about recognising Pakistan even as a de facto nuclear power. The US media often harps on the possible dangers to Pakistan’s nuclear programme, despite the fact that security measures around Pakistani nuclear assets are near perfect. The US played a major role in lobbying for India in the Nuclear Suppliers Group before signing the agreement in 2006. Will the United States undertake similar lobbying effort for Pakistan? The answer in my mind is clearly in the negative. Since the days of Bill Clinton, the US has treated Pakistan at two different levels, a reality that became clearer in 2006.
Pakistan and the United States largely agree on the future of Afghanistan, but they disagree on the means to achieve it. In fact, Pakistan’s links to the Haqqani group are largely because of the US and Indian policies in Afghanistan. The US presence in post-2014 Afghanistan is viewed by Pakistan as a potential cause of continued instability, while the US and Karzai see it as a stabilising factor. In any possible civil war in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States are likely to support opposing forces, overtly or covertly.
Historically, the bilateral ties have been based on a robust relationship between Rawalpindi and Pentagon. In 2008, the United States decided to take a different route. While civilian oversight of the military establishment is a laudable goal in the long run, it is not possible in Pakistan in the immediate future. Our civilian leadership is weak and corrupt and lacks capacity for good governance. No wonder, it has surrendered its security and foreign policies to the military establishment. President Zardari may be a great friend of the Americans, but Pakistani public views them differently. According to a recent survey, 74 percent of the Pakistanis view US as an enemy country. Zardari’s own approval rating in Pakistan is very low. I wonder why the Americans have tried all this while to control Pakistani military establishment through Zardari-led civilian setup. Are they so oblivious of the ground realities in Pakistan?
Perceptions, they say, are more important than reality. And both nations have very negative perceptions of each other. Hawks have gained ground in both countries. Cool heads, on both sides, have become endangered species. The outgoing US Ambassador Cameron Munter was not a hawk. He supported US apology to Pakistan on the Salala incident and was also against drone attacks. However, the hawks in Washington were not prepared to listen to him. No wonder, a frustrated Munter has decided to join the academia.
The irony of this relationship is that while we raise anti-US slogans at the pitch of our voices, we also go running to Washington for budgetary support. This situation is neither sustainable, nor desirable in the long run. It can be partially sustained, but only till the USA needs our cooperation in Afghanistan. So what should be done to achieve a long-term healthy relationship?
The United States should try to improve its image in Pakistan. It used to do that quite effectively in the past. The US Information Service used to be quite active in Pakistan. Young Pakistani students were taken to the United States to live with families there. It may be difficult today to duplicate that. But I wonder what stops it from constructing some high profile mega projects in Pakistan. On its part, Pakistan should too improve its image abroad through think-tanks, media, lobbies and universities.
But the key to a strong foreign policy is the strength within. In Pakistan, we must extend the writ of state to every inch of our territory, Karachi and Fata, in particular. We should collect more taxes to reduce our external dependence and not let any Faisal Shahzad receive training in terrorism on our soil.
n The writer is a former ambassador and a freelance analyst with Arabic satellite channels.