The situation in which Pakistan finds itself today, as it forges a new relationship with the United States, is very different from the one that led to a tight embrace between the two countries more than half a century ago. Then, both needed each other. Pakistan was seeking a partner that would help build up its defences against India. The first generation of Pakistani leadership did not fully trust their neighbour’s intentions towards the new state they were hard at work to establish. Pakistan also needed finance to quicken the pace of economic development. The United States needed a partner in South Asia, which could be a part of the virtual wall it was erecting against the spread of communism.
Now more than 50 years later, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Washington needs Islamabad more than Pakistan needs the United States. Even after the death of Osama bin Laden, the Americans remain apprehensive about the harm Islamic extremists could do to its economic and political interests around the globe. Terrorism experts believe that Pakistan is now the epicenter of international terrorism inspired by Islamic fundamentalists. But Pakistan is not alone; there are other even more unsettled places around the world — Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia to name three but perhaps also Libya, Iraq, and Syria if the current unrest in these countries cannot be brought under control — that could become exporters of terrorist activities. America and Europe are keen on throwing a fence around this troubled area and both believe that Pakistan could be a critical partner in such an enterprise. Pakistan, however, would like to partner but on its own terms.
There are at least three items in Pakistan’s term sheet for cooperation with the West. The first is that the announced pull out from Afghanistan by the United States should not leave a regime in Kabul that would be openly hostile to Pakistan. There was such a regime in place for 30 years, from 1947 (the year of Pakistan’s founding) and 1978 (the year the Soviet Union moved into Afghanistan). Then Kabul campaigned actively for the creation of an autonomous Pakhtun state that would extend to the western bank of the Indus River. It would also not want an Afghan government that was very closely aligned with India. That said, the change in thinking on security issues in Islamabad does not preclude a tripartite arrangement involving Afghanistan, India and Pakistan, in which all three countries work together to collectively promote their economic interests. Building of cross-country pipelines would be an important part of such an arrangement. Sustainable economic growth at reasonable rates will not be possible in mainland South Asia, unless a way is found to resolve critical shortages of energy. One way of doing this is to import natural gas through pipelines that would connect the area with energy-surplus Central Asia and the Middle East.
The second item on the Pakistani term-sheet, is to ensure a steady flow of foreign capital to augment its very low levels of domestic savings. Even if the country embarks on a structural adjustment program that would bring about increases in the rate of domestic savings and tax-to-GDP ratio, foreign flows would still be required for many years into the future. In that context the United States has been an unreliable partner.
The third item is Pakistan’s requirements that the United States desists from those acts that add to the state of fragility in the country. Some of the US sponsored activities in recent months fall into this category. For instance, CIA agents are operating freely in Pakistan — as The Economist wrote in a recent issue there were “CIA agents who roamed across cities without the oversight of local intelligence agencies.” One of them — a man by the name of Raymond Davis — murdered two individuals in broad daylight on a busy Lahore street. He was let go after spending several weeks in a Pakistani jail. The same issue of the magazine expressed surprise at the gathering in the compound of the American embassy in Islamabad of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. It wrote: “Even at the best of time it would have been unusual for America’s embassy in Islamabad to organise (such a meet). Given the grim state of bilateral relations, the meeting looked downright provocative. Some in Pakistan’s religiously conservative society accused America of conspiring to attack them by spreading outrageously liberal sexual views. One Islamic political party called it ‘cultural terrorism’”.
Most in Pakistan, including the country’s civilian leadership and the military establishment, believe that an alternative is available to which Islamabad could now turn more openly. In recent months, a number of senior people from Pakistan have gone to Beijing hoping to cultivate a relationship that will be more durable and less demanding. This year Pakistan will be celebrating the fiftieth year of the establishment of a formal relationship with China. This will be done with great fanfare and will no doubt bring in more indications of Chinese economic help and military support. To distinguish its relations with Beijing, Pakistan has begun to call it an ‘all-weather friendship’. Three weeks after the death of Osama bin Laden, Ahmad Mukhtar, Pakistan’s defence minister announced that China would take over the management of Gwadar, a deep-water Pakistani port on the Arabian Sea. The port is currently managed by a company from Singapore. But there was some confusion about what had transpired. According to one western newspaper, “the government in Beijing said the Gwadar takeover had come as news to China”. Even if the claims Pakistan was making about China’s interest in their country are somewhat exaggerated, it is clear that a tilt has occurred. There cannot be any doubt that Islamabad was moving away from the United States and was leaning towards China. Such a move will have profound implications not only for South Asia but for the evolving world political order as well.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 25th, 2011.