The signing of the Pakistan-US memorandum of understanding (MoU) governing supplies to US troops in Afghanistan has paved the way for the release of $1.8 billion in Coalition Support Fund, held up for two years. More importantly, it has permitted tentative moves towards a thaw in the frozen relations between the two countries.
The injection of nearly two billion dollars in Pakistan’s treasury was important, given the gradual decline in the country’s foreign exchange reserves. But of greater import is the expectation that the MoU has brought closure to the worrying decline in bilateral relations that began with the Raymond Davis affair and culminated with the Salala incident. What ensued was a bitter campaign of accusations and recriminations, in which the Pakistanis saw everything in terms of ‘national honour’, while the Americans viewed everything as proof of Pakistan’s ‘duplicity’.
The aroused passions threatened to irretrievably damage their bilateral ties, increasingly critical to the successful conclusion of Afghanistan’s ‘endgame’. The MoU was followed by the newly appointed DG ISI’s first visit to the US. One can only hope that his talks with senior US officials were “productive” as claimed, because of the ISI’s traditionally pivotal role on both combating extremists at home and determining Pakistan’s policy on Afghanistan. In fact, even though Pakistan and the US have been close friends for many years, it has been their military and intelligence agencies that have been primary drivers of this partnership. This became much more pronounced after 9/11, when Pakistan chose close partnership with the US, in its global war on terror. Even after General (retd) Pervez Musharraf’s departure and President Barack Obama’s entry into the White House, there was little change in the substance of their ties, notwithstanding Secretary Hillary Clinton’s claims of a “strategic” relationship having been achieved.
Recent developments have confirmed that for the foreseeable future, whether Pakistan likes it or not, its relationship with the US will be determined by American perception of its cooperation on Afghanistan. This was highlighted in Senator John Kerry’s remark during confirmation hearings for Ambassadors-designate to Kabul and Islamabad that Pakistan remains central to what happens in Afghanistan. Latest reports indicating some “understanding” on the Haqqani network, with Pakistan willing to initiate a scaled down operation — provided the US assures it of sealing the border — should remove a major irritant. In fact, this network has acquired a stature far beyond anything its founders had envisaged, because it is not only the US but India and Afghanistan, too, that view it with special concern. And now, reports to the effect that Pakistan has facilitated the long-sought meeting between Afghan officials and Mullah Omar’s deputy, Mullah Baradar, should help in reducing Kabul’s (and America’s) misgivings about Pakistan’s attitude to the reconciliation efforts in Afghanistan. Moreover, if this is indicative of a gradual shift away from a desire to be the preeminent player in Afghanistan, it could help promote genuine understanding between Islamabad and Kabul. It is in this context that reports that Pakistan has been rethinking its ‘doctrine of strategic depth’ vis-a-vis Afghanistan, is also a welcome step. This was alluded to by Ambassador Richard Olson in his Senate testimony. Recent initiatives to improve relations with India are also a step in the right direction, and not only because it finds favour with Washington, but on its own merits.
These events do indicate a thaw in Pakistan-US relations. But for bilateral ties to acquire a degree of predictability and permanence, we will have to work on multiple fronts that should include enhanced trade, meaningful American investment (building dams rather than repairing tube-wells) and engagements among civil society groups, politicians, journalists and academicians. There is no doubt that both Pakistan and the US should remain wedded to this relationship, though it has to be tempered with greater realism that includes lowered expectations. Exaggerated claims of “strategic partnership” never jelled with reality, which is why when Salala happened, it threatened to destroy the relationship.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 15th, 2012.