A new day

Zafar Hilaly April 19, 2010

The recent US-Pakistan love fest in Washington had about it some unique features, the chief of which was that the visit was declared a success by Richard Holbrooke even before the participants had convened.

Hence, the ‘new day’ that Hilary Clinton proclaimed it to be, in her opening remarks, had dawned much before the sun had found its presence in the celestial firmament on March 24th when deliberations began.

This eagerness to please on the American side had two reasons. First, General Kayani had staked his prestige on a successful outcome and the Americans dared not disappoint him. Second, the Obama team had, thus far, no foreign policy successes to their credit. Their Israeli ally is giving them nightmares, and so is Iran.

The outcome in Iraq appears increasingly scary. Pakistan, on the other hand, has been turned around thanks to Kayani. He had presented the Obama team with their sole success. He deserved to be feted. So great was the hype that the Washington Post felt that a word of caution was needed.

It warned the administration not to be fooled by Pakistan’s promises or be over indulgent to Pakistan’s ’laundry list‘ of requests for assistance. The Post had a point. Fifty-six pages of projects were unnecessary for a two-day mostly ’feel good‘ meeting. They created exaggerated expectations in Pakistan.

Highlighting some core needs (water, energy, nuclear and security assistance) would have sufficed for the session. As it was, Hilary merely listened. Fine words and an insinuating appearance are seldom associated with true friendship. Both were on display in spades during the conference. Hilary Clinton's bon homie, perhaps because there was too much of it, appeared contrived.

Her subliminal message seemed to be: “We’re friends. We don’t trust each other”. It did not inspire confidence. But then, let it be said, though we are in this war together it is for very different ends. Much about the conference seemed tacky. There was no meeting of minds only the inner necessity, nay compulsion to get on with each other so that while one may leave with her reputation intact the other can stay alive.

None of which can pass for a genuine change of heart. Hence Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s claim that there has been a 180 degree turn in the American perception is laughable. But yes, the Americans are prepared to listen and not merely hector; the mood of Congress has changed, following Swat and North Waziristan and our demand for civil nuclear cooperation is getting a hearing.

But Kayani and the Americans will have to do better. Killing militants does wonders for the army’s morale but its trickledown effect to the people is marginal. What perturbs the people is the abomination that their daily lives are dominated by joblessness, power outages and inflation and this meeting did nothing to address that.

A true measure of success would have been the announcement of a mega power project funded by America. Instead the extra $125 million allotted for energy was miniscule. Billionaire Mansha can raise that in two phone calls, one of which would be to his wife. And were the pro US Zaradari regime halfway functional or trusted, Mansha would probably have done so by now.

If the Americans are not accommodating, the resultant popular furore may push the Zardari regime, along with Pakistan, over the brink. Similarly, if Pakistan’s concerns are not addressed in the pre-withdrawal negotiations in Afghanistan that are under way, the post withdrawal scenario will lead to a waning of cooperation and the recrudescence of the Taliban followed inevitably by civil war.

The ’great game‘ in Afghanistan will restart in earnest. Notwithstanding the hoopla, the ‘new day’ in US–Pakistan relations suggests that the future is made of the same stuff as the past. Any claims that relations were being addressed with uncommon dexterity and wisdom are as yet unsubstantiated.

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