American lip service

The Pentagon acknowledged on Thursday that Pakistan had lost more lives and troops to terrorism than any other country. Is the US administration ever going to look beyond these empty acknowledgements, and formulate a foreign policy of reconciliation and actual trust building? The current Af-Pak policy will backfire unless the US comes up with better incentives for Pakistan to comply with its demands – demands that are targeting the wrong problem right now.

In all honesty, lives lost in Pakistan after 9/11 have been to protect American lives. Pakistan hasn’t used this as leverage in foreign policy at all. Sympathy goes a long way at international forums, and there is none for Pakistan. While the headlines this week ere that Pentagon Chief Spokesperson Dana White aimed at finding a common ground with Pakistan saying that “This is about broadening our relationship and looking for opportunity.” Just about two weeks ago US expressed “deep concern” at the release of Hafiz Saeed, the alleged mastermind of the 2008 attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai that killed more than 160 people, calling for him to be “arrested and charged for his crimes”. Just a month before, in October, a series of high-level meetings in the US and Pakistan between officials of the two countries were thought to have “opened the door to a serious and frank dialogue.”

This flip-flopping happens often, and it would be naïve to think that Pak-US relations have improved from one statement by the Pentagon. While American official visits are all hugs-and-kisses, opinion in Washington about Pakistan remains dark and dim.

The Trump administration’s strategy on Pakistan is not focused on tackling extremism and terrorism. They just want the Haqqani network. Going hard for one group, whether it is the Haqqanis or the Jamaat-ud-Dawa does nothing for Pakistan’s problems, especially in the short run. Countless editorials have been written that this is a fight for hearts and minds. We can kill and arrest as many goons as we can manage but their supporters multiply and magnify if systems of schooling, health, bureaucracy and security are not made better and de-radicalised. Recruitment has to stop.

The Haqqani network is a sophisticated insurgent group that attacks the Afghan government and US troops in Afghanistan, and is considered to be backed by important elements within Pakistan’s security establishment. The American concern is not surprising, but what is surprising is that after decades of blunders across the region, they still don’t know how to deal with insurgents. This single pronged strategy for Pakistan will fail; in the same way that India-Pak diplomacy is failing because of India’s single-minded focus on Pakistan supporting terrorist activities. You cannot ask a country to incriminate itself, and use self-incrimination as incentive.

On August 21, US President Trump said: “We are paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars; at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting. But that will have to change.” The few US officials that are sympathetic to Pakistan have always premised support on Pakistan eliminating these safe havens. Forget the fact that the Haqqanis once also fought against the Soviets to America’s joy. American pressure on Pakistan over one terror group that does not directly attack Pakistan will not work. If the US needs Pakistan to make sure its occupation of Afghanistan is peacefully maintained, it is not providing the right incentives. For one, asking India to help more with Afghanistan only makes its certain that Pakistan will want to keep its “strategic military assets” intact, fearful of Indian encirclement.

Pakistan alleges that Afghanistan gives safe haven to the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan from where it attacks Pakistan- but who cares about Pakistani lives lost? Pakistan’s claims are hardly credible in the international arena, not just because of a lack of understanding on the American side, but also because of a long strategy of lying about eliminating those the Americans wanted eliminated. The proof of Pakistan’s failure to tackle extremism is visible every day, with religious hooligans attacking government buildings without remorse, shaking hands with military officers while their mouths insult the government and judiciary. Radical Islamic seminaries continue to function, including the Dar-ul-Uloom Haqqania in Akora Khattak. If the US has lost the plot in getting Pakistan to really make an effort for anti-terrorism, the Pakistani state has just made things worse for itself.

A case has to be made for the US coming up with a Pakistan policy, rather than an Af-Pak policy. Pakistan, by sheer stubborn free will, has been able to frustrate all American expectation that it would dance like a puppet for it. Many times this has been embarrassing; like when Osama Bin Laden was found lounging in Abbottabad, family in tow. But sometimes it has been rewarding; like Pakistan’s move to befriend China in the 1960s, regardless of American carrots and sticks during the Cold War. In international relations Pakistan acts out of its own calculations, where it sees itself as a major player. When seen through the Afghan or Indian prism, its foreign policy makes no sense. The US has not reoriented itself to Pakistan’s own idea of sovereignty and survival in the last ten years. Pakistan’s story is not of ‘a rogue state’, ‘state failure’, ‘civil war’ or ‘economic collapse’. Despite problems it is a resilient state no matter what op-eds in India or the US suggest. Pakistan has never been a threat to any other country in the world, except maybe India, that too, only a reactive threat. It would be wise for India and America to soften the rhetoric. If the US can ensure that Pakistan’s survival is not at stake from its American aggression and occupations as well as Indian threats, the US may be able to solve its Afghan problem and Pakistan’s extremist problems in one go.

Saadia Gardezi

The writer is studying South Asian history and politics at Oxford University and is former Op-Ed Editor of The Nation. She tweets at @saadiagardezi

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