During her recent visit to India, Hillary Clinton made strong statements against Pakistan. She was trying to earn goodwill of her hosts and leveraging Washington’s political and diplomatic pressure on Pakistan — although choosing India as the venue for such remarks further complicates our own bilateral relations. She was especially critical of Islamabad’s failure to take action against Hafiz Saeed and mentioned that al Qaeda and the Taliban’s top leadership, including Ayman al Zawahiri and Mullah Omar, was hiding Pakistan. Implicit in the remarks was the danger that if true, then the US could undertake unilateral action, similar to the Abbottabad raid.
In a related development, the US Congress introduced legislation to slap sanctions against Pakistan and cut military and economic assistance. Congress is also about to declare the Haqqani network a terrorist organization.
On the other hand Pakistan, despite being seized by internal problems, is playing hardball and has taken a course that leaves little space for maneuovre. It has linked the opening of ground communication lines to Afghanistan conditional on the US stopping drone attacks and apologising for the Salala air strike. With US presidential elections in November, and the focus on domestic politics, an apology seems remote. As regards drones, this is the centrepiece of America’s counter-terrorism policy and to expect any let-up in its use until Fata is cleared of militant sanctuaries is unrealistic.
Moreover, the current impasse equally affects our relations with Nato. As regards the high cost of using the alternate northern route, Washington may be partially offsetting it by curtailing military and economic assistance to Pakistan.
Despite the deep crisis in relations, strategic imperatives of the two countries demand that they break the logjam and make the reconciliation process politically palatable.
At a critical time when US forces are thinning out from Afghanistan, if Islamabad opts to stay out of Chicago then the danger is that the policies that are formulated will be without its input.
Washington’s current attitude towards Pakistan is reflective of its internal political dynamics and frustrations in Afghanistan. President Obama seems to have lost much of the progressive and conservative support that he initially enjoyed. Current American politics has become vindictive and vituperative, as a major migration has taken place to the extreme right, which is reflected in a polarised Congress. The optimism that initially surrounded Obama’s presidency has largely dissipated. He is trying to win back some of his popularity with liberal democrats by openly supporting issues that are dear to them while taking hard positions on issues related to Pakistan to get support from the right. In these circumstances to expect any major concession would be unrealistic.
In fact Pakistan–US relations have been in a free fall ever since the unilateral Special Forces raid on Osama’s hideout. The operation was an unambiguous demonstration that Washington does not trust Pakistan. To most Americans it was indicative of Pakistani complicity. Only those at the top were prepared to give the benefit of doubt that it was indicative of incompetence at higher levels, but complicity at lower levels.
There is a danger that the current stalemate could lead to Pakistan’s isolation and further damage its international image. Stoppage of US military and economic assistance coupled with an indifferent attitude of the World Bank and multilateral agencies could squeeze Pakistan financially. Worsening of our economic situation will aggravate militancy and feed violence and anarchy.
Ironically, whenever Pakistan has had a democratic government its relations with US and western democracies worsen.
Already on a warpath with Iran, can Washington truly achieve stability in Afghanistan without the help of two major players of the region? By cutting off military and economic assistance and trying to contain Pakistan it would be losing the leverage that it needs for a more orderly withdrawal and future presence in the region.
The challenge is how can the US and Pakistan build confidence in this difficult situation. First, both should cool the rhetoric and blame-game. On the question of drones, a way should be found wherein the two militaries work cooperatively in identifying targets.
After the signing of the US-Afghanistan strategic partnership agreement it is evident that the US has long-term interests and commitment in the region, beyond 2014. A breakdown of relations with US at this time would seriously endanger peace and stability of Afghanistan with serious consequences for Pakistan and the region.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 15th, 2012.