Over 15 years in the Afghan war, having spent billions of dollars and losing thousands of lives, the talk in Washington, DC amongst some of the policymakers and think tanks is whether Pakistan is a friend or a foe. Pushed by the Indian lobby or not, the current political climate in DC is such that it’s hard to remain neutral on Pakistan, let alone have a soft stance towards the country, with propositions to halt the entire US aid to Pakistan, and putting economic sanctions are surfacing more frequently than ever before.
Normally, such a discourse and political developments should cause an alarm in Pakistan’s diplomatic corps and within the security establishment. In response, however, the Foreign Office of Pakistan gets down to releasing a pre-prepared statement from 2006 reminding the US of the cost Pakistan has suffered during the war. This exercise has become so monotonous that civil bureaucracy on both sides realises to a certain extent the irrelevance of such blank statements given the fact that their respective security institutions, and not them, drive policy between the two countries.
Pak-US relations — dropping off the edge?
Peddled by a handful of US congressmen, such a narrative may not have any immediate effect on the US policy towards Pakistan but in the long run may reduce Pakistan’s clout and ability to lobby for its interest in the US. The last entire decade is a witness to Pakistan’s shrinking space in the US capital because of it slowly being labelled as playing a ‘double game’ and ‘state sponsoring terrorism’ in the wake of the US failures in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet, Pakistan continues to receive one of the largest military and economic aid packages from the US — something that India finds hard to grapple with and for the right reason.
Part of the reason why Pakistan continues to receive highest aid from the US while getting the most beating at the same time despite of all the sacrifices the country and its people have made, is that its relations with the US is driven largely by the military which is more concerned with delivering on the war front instead of also managing the optics and the political side of the relations. Despite all the efforts made through the Kerry Lugar Berman Bill to balance the civil-military context of the US-Pakistan relations, the relations continue to focus on the security and military side of the things. It’s exactly the opposite with India where the US has a primary interest in trade and commerce and the relations are managed by the State Department.
The drop scene of US-Pakistan relations
In case of Pakistan the US relations are managed in layers from White House, DoD, CIA to the State Department — most of these institutions that are almost always not onboard on their strategy towards Pakistan. The effects of this contradiction in the US policy is evident when at one point the US Congress is making a move to put Pakistan under sanctions, the State Department pushing Pakistan to do more, while on the contrary the Pentagon praising the efforts of the Pakistan Army in fighting terrorism. It almost appears that Pakistan is slowly becoming a policy mess of the US internal politics. And this won’t be the first time any country has gone through this. The Middle East, South America and South East Asia are full of stories that are still struggling to recover from the duplicity in American policies.
Similarly, in Pakistan the policy towards the US has almost negligible civilian context to it and the troubling part is that there isn’t even an attempt from the civilian side to take control of the policy. In almost all the Pakistani embassies around the world, it is the Defence Attache’s office that is operational, and taking up the diplomatic as well as its primary defence role. A Foreign Office that is still relying on press releases and 17th-century style of diplomacy is bound to fail in a capital where PM Modi gets a rockstar welcome partly because of his disruptive new style of public diplomacy using technology and soft power.
Pak-US relations — out of balance
In a situation where Pakistan isn’t able to de-militarise its relations with the US and unable to offer anything beyond security, it will continue to tread a sensitive path which may deliver to a great extent on the security front like it did in winning the Cold War for the United States, but it will definitely lose out in the long run if the relationship misses the civilian angle that can work on the people-to-people connection, improve perception and optics of Pakistan and enhance Pakistan’s soft power in DC. In the words of Joseph Nye Jr, it doesn’t matter who wins the war any more, what matters is whose story wins. Unfortunately, Pakistan’s foreign and security policy is all but without a story.
The US, hence, isn’t really wrong to ask if Pakistan is a friend or a foe. More important question, however, is, if Pakistan is its own friend or a foe.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 16th, 2016.
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