Pakistan’s relations with the United States, even in the best of times, have never been smooth and wrinkle free, but the manner in which they have remained turbulent since the beginning of this year is truly unprecedented.
This is both surprising and disappointing as the Obama administration had entered office determined to enhance our relations beyond the single item agenda seen in earlier times. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, appeared genuinely proud of helping it graduate to a ‘strategic’ partnership, though critics harboured reservations about this claim.
In particular, since early this year, Pakistan-US relations have been lurching from crisis to crisis, renewing old wounds, inflicting new injuries, while adding to the existing legacy of betrayals. The air raid on November 26, however, appears to have thrown a monkey wrench in an already twisted relationship, sending a bolt of anger and outrage among Pakistanis. Abandoning its earlier nonchalant attitude to similar episodes, both the political and the military leadership have reacted with unusual speed and resolve.
The hurriedly summoned meeting of the defence committee of the cabinet (DCC) announced a number of measures indicative of a radical departure from past practice. In particular, the DCC’s decision to “review all programmes, activities and cooperative arrangements with the US and Nato, including diplomatic, political, military and intelligence”, as well as the army chief’s order that “all necessary steps be taken for an effective response to this irresponsible act”, are decisions that, if carried through, could have a major impact on the core of our relations with the United States.
What explains this? Is it because of the large number of casualties (the largest since Musharraf’s Kargil adventure), or is it on account of the disappointment that the raid should have come less than 24 hours after General John Allen, the Isaf commander, had met General Kayani and “discussed measures concerning coordination, communication and procedures aimed at enhancing border control on both sides”. It could be both, but also indicative of a deeper malaise afflicting our relations with Washington.
Since the Raymond Davis affair, the army has been on the back foot, caught between its desire to protect its nationalist credentials and to keep the Americans happy. Even though it chose the latter, it was humiliated by the Abbottabad episode and the Mehran Base fiasco — both of which placed the forces and intelligence agencies in the embarrassing situation where they came under searing criticism from lobbies traditionally loyal to them.
Even though Secretary Clinton’s visit last month was a welcome damage limitation exercise, her subsequent statements in India, the Istanbul meeting where a new strategic architecture for the region was unfolded and finally, the memogate scandal, all added to the army’s discomfiture and desperate need to regain the initiative on relations with the US.
The story on the other side of the Atlantic is no less confused and convoluted, with considerable daylight separating the White House from the defence and intelligence agencies. As it becomes increasingly evident that American forces are headed for defeat in Afghanistan, which could have major implications for its influence in the region, the knives are being sharpened in preparation of the inevitable question as to who lost the Afghan war. In this hunt for escapegoats, no quarter will be given and none asked for. Only a month ago, while in Kabul, Secretary Clinton had warned that the US was losing patience with Pakistan but was determined to pursue its goal, irrespective of whether it chose to be helpful or not.
This explains why our military leadership believes that Washington’s interest in Pakistan is transactional and, therefore, has little reason to accommodate their interests, unless ours are promoted. The air raid may be a good opportunity to demonstrate newfound resolve. But is the country prepared to pay the price for having entered into a Faustian bargain in the first place? Unity at home and deft diplomacy abroad, rather than public threats, may be a better option.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 30th, 2011.