We were at the US State Department somewhere around 2003-04, and the lady presenter was painstakingly elaborating the Washington’s efforts to burnish American image globally, particularly in the world of Islam. She had no answer when I reminded her that the US government levied (and continues to levy, I believe) a hefty visa fee on all visa applicants irrespective of whether they succeed or not. And that it was a substantial sum in poor countries, and that it betrayed latent racism by discouraging applications from the poor global South. Commenting on the US image, I reminded her about 1950s and 60s, when to combat malnutrition, school kids across Pakistan would be provided with milk in aluminum tins bearing the traditional handshake logo of USAID.
And then the late 1980s. While processing visa for study leave ex-Pakistan, how profusely respectful the visa officer at the US Embassy in Islamabad was, asking me to send my driver to collect the passport the following day. I had to inform him that an Army Captain does not have a driver.
Pak-US relations, critical for both countries, are a case of over-expectation, transactional relevance and spasmodic neglect. Leaders, on both sides, often struggle with this innate reality. The US, in particular, has repeatedly been drawn towards criticality of this relationship by urgency of the circumstances.
Every bilateral relationship has ‘constants and variables’. While the ‘constants’ firmly anchor the relationship, the ‘variables’ adjust it to the dictates of environment, fine-tuning it. And then there are perceptions and expectations on either side, especially the smaller and weaker side, that need to be carefully managed.
Let’s start with the ‘constants’. Pakistan-America bilateralism is firmly anchored in history; has societal moorings; Pakistan being a springboard and balancer for the US geo-political aspirations (and not relevant only through the narrow prism of ‘counterterrorism’). Their ties span politico-economic and military-technological cooperation and have a lot of ‘positive relevance’ rather than the much-hyped military dimension, on display since the war on terror.
Historically, Pakistan’s journey towards independence, its cultural heritage, and the romanticism of its geography have always captured the American public imagination. This bilateralism was not fed upon geo-strategy alone, as commonly believed. The US recognised an independent Pakistan on the very first day of its nationhood on August 15, 1947, when the State Department established the US Embassy at Karachi. President Truman’s message to Quaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah congratulated Pakistan for ‘emergence among the family of nations.’
In 1954, Pakistan alongside the US, the UK, France, New Zealand, Australia, the Philippines and Thailand formed the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). Pakistan alongside the UK, Turkey, Iran and Iraq partnered with the US in Baghdad Pact (1955), which morphed into Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) in 1959.
On the very first page, President Nixon in his memoirs, In the Arena (1990), confesses, as early as 1964 to President Ayub’s advice to visit China. Chou Enlai’s invitation was later delivered through President Yahya Khan to President Nixon. This was truly an epic moment for the US, as Nixon and Henry Kissinger celebrated the invite, drinking a very old brandy, unusually after dinner. Bringing the US closer to China, weaning it away from the Soviet orbit had substantial benefits to the US.
And Pakistan was a frontline state in dismantling the Soviet nightmare for America and the West. Training, provisioning and mentoring Afghans to defeat the USSR was never possible without Pakistan’s steadfast and persistent support. Given the enormity of this undertaking, if Pakistan was repaid in the process, that was, that is and that will never be enough. Although, the US could have been more high-minded in ‘doing more’ for Pakistan, rather than turning its ‘major non-NATO ally’ into most sanctioned ally on flimsy technicalities.
If America and its Western Alliance today are relieved of the looming shadow of Soviet Hammer and Sickle, it is because of Pakistan. All this while their new love/strategic partner, India, was in bed with the Soviet Union. Islamabad was kingpin in this geo-strategic coup of global consequences and historic implications. The remnants of Soviet order still terrify the Western alliance, as substantiated by their proxy war in Ukraine.
Lest the US forget. President Reagan while addressing UNGA (1987) said: “… Pakistan, in the face of enormous pressure and intimidation, has given sanctuary to Afghan refugees. We salute the courage of Pakistan and the Pakistani people. They deserve strong support from all of us.” One feels pity on the small people occupying Pakistan’s high offices, who do not, cannot and will not use this potent historic leverage optimally, and will sell so cheap.
English-speaking moderate Pakistan has always remained a crucial bridge between the US/West and the Middle East especially with the Islamic World. Its weight and clout in the OIC, its fraternal ties with Saudi Arabia and GCC countries and Turkey provide it with unique leverage. Our first-rate diplomatic corps has nurtured our profound relations with China and now with Russia. The ‘critical’ noise to the contrary is best ignored as our habit. Pakistani diaspora in the US is enriching to the US cultural, financial and societal milieu. Pakistan’s inexpensive exports greatly help the US consumers tide over these times of high inflation.
Our military diplomacy has greatly helped the US in various complex situations. Pakistan’s critical military equipment is still US-made, paid for fully by Pakistan through its meagre resources, sometimes in advance. While the US often reneges on supply promises. So, it is not a one-sided relationship where Pakistan is always on receiving end. Pakistan does bring a lot of ‘positive relevance’ that needs to be acknowledged by America.
During Pakistan’s present hour of need, the US support is not visible. Chinook’s presence during the 2006 Earthquake was noticeable; people in Kashmir would draw ‘H’ for them to land; their replicas were sold in the local markets out of public fondness. This time the Super Power is miserly, calculating and leveraging. And that does not go down well with well-wishers of Pak-US bilateralism, Pakistan’s flood-affected humanity and the pro-US elements within/outside the government.
This is the time to burnish images and mould perceptions rather than spending millions in wasteful bureaucratic junkets later on.
Next week we discuss the ‘variables’ of Pak-US ties with reference to perceptions, anti-Americanism and the tilt away from Pakistan in the US corridors of power.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 22nd, 2022.
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