Raymond Davis jailed in Lahore. Osama bin Laden discovered in the Pakistani Army’s front yard. US forces expelled. Strategic dialogue suspended. $800 million dollars in US military assistance withheld. And now a Washington-based Kashmir activist arrested for being an ISI operative.
Though US-Pakistan ties remain intact, hostility and mistrust are rapidly gnawing away at them. The troubled partnership hangs by thin threads, and one devastating blow could sever it completely. Most Pakistani and American officials cannot bear the thought of a shattered relationship. The fact is that neither nation’s interests would suffer if ties were severed; in fact, they may well be better served.
The paramount expectation of both governments is that the relationship helps attain their objectives in Afghanistan. For Washington, this entails using Pakistani roads to transport Nato supplies. However, if ties were ruptured, Washington would simply turn to Central Asian routes. Bilateral tensions have periodically prompted Islamabad to shut down Pakistani routes and vehicles are repeatedly attacked. Last weekend alone, one fuel tanker was bombed and another fired upon near Peshawar.
Washington also clings to the hope of a Pakistani Army assault on North Waziristan-based militants, who target US forces in Afghanistan. So long as the US-Pakistan relationship remains in effect, this represents an unlikely prospect, albeit one that cannot be ruled out. A collapse in ties would eliminate the possibility altogether — and this would be a good thing for both countries, given the unrest such an assault would unleash. A North Waziristan invasion would unite militant groups against Islamabad, intensifying violence that has already claimed 35,000 Pakistani lives. Additionally, an offensive would trigger a fresh exodus of militants into other tribal areas and across the Durand Line, where they would target international forces in Afghanistan, or add to the growing number of cross-border attacks.
Islamabad, meanwhile, expects the relationship to accord it a prime role in Afghan reconciliation. Yet there is little indication this will happen, given its disagreements with Washington over the role of the Haqqani network in future negotiations. Furthermore, America’s appetite for talks with the Taliban has dissipated after the group’s recent assassination campaign.
Another abiding wish of both capitals is to stabilise Pakistan — hence the infusions of aid into the country. Unfortunately, the current US economic assistance programme is limited and ineffective. If a rupture in ties ended such largesse, Islamabad would find replacement donors among the Chinese, Saudis, Britain’s Department for International Development, the IMF and the Asian Development Bank. Beijing, meanwhile, would fill the vacuum left by military aid cuts.
In short, Pakistan would be able to weather a US aid cut-off. Washington could use these monies to help staunch its spiralling debt and fund counterterrorism efforts in Yemen, which, according to the new US defence secretary, now poses more of a threat than Pakistan.
Given its radioactive reputation in Pakistan, Washington’s stabilisation-through-engagement efforts are bound to fail. The longer US-Pakistan ties persevere, the more anti-Americanism rises and militancy is fuelled. To be sure, America’s relations with Pakistan do not drive ethnic strife in Karachi or insurgency in Balochistan — yet they do stoke anti-state violence in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Fata and southern Punjab. They also deepen fears that Washington seeks to seize Pakistan’s nuclear assets — a perception that reinforces widespread hostility towards America and strengthens militant narratives.
Cutting government links would cool such sentiments, and deprive extremists of a chief rallying cry. In this calmer environment, Pakistan and the US could take stock of what went wrong and recognise that neither side enjoys the leverage it believes it wields over the other. Perhaps a cooling-off period, with time, could even lead to renewed ties — albeit ties infused with more realistic expectations of what the bilateral relationship can deliver.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 22nd, 2011.