Washington's terms of engagement

Published in Dawn newspaper on September 6, 2003

US-Pakistan relationship has seen many ups and downs. Traditionally the US has had no direct economic or strategic interest in South Asia. Its interest was derivative emanating from its concern about Communist threat to the region. The relationship thus waxed and waned in proportion to the American perceptions of this threat.

But South Asia has been transformed by the post-cold war world, the Afghan Jihad and its aftermath, the rise of religious militancy, globalization, and by its nuclearization and the events of September 11, and so has the basis for the US relationship with it. While in the past the region was the focus of US interest because of the threat from outside now it is a source of concern primarily because of what happens there, specially in Pakistan, and how it impacts on the outside. The threat is now from inside to outside.

In the post-cold war South Asia, India had been able to command attention of the West, and successfully transcend the pull of gravity that had traditionally dragged it down to the India-Pakistan equation. India could play the West's game like Pakistan used to at the height of the cold war. Indeed there was a new "cold war" now, that is against fundamentalist Islam, and America needed allies to fight it. This would at once build up India and lead Pakistan to isolation. The roles had reversed because the issues had changed. We had become part of the problem not the solution.

Clinton's TV address during his brief stopover in Islamabad was intended to be a rude awakening to us both in real and figurative sense. But because it was so stunningly rude it may have distracted our attention from the substance of the message. His Texan successor was, however, much more focused in his wake-up call to Pakistan leaving us in little doubt where we stood internationally and with the United States, the two being synonymous in the present world.

There is now revival of sorts in the US-Pakistan relations. Broadly speaking, the United States now considers its relations with India and Pakistan as important, for similar as well as different reasons. Whereas with India the US seeks a broader economic and strategic relationship focused on the resurgence of China, with Pakistan it seeks influence and engagement to effect changes helpful to its overall interests in South Asia and beyond specially its own basic security interests.

But any vision of a quantum change in the relationship may be illusory and a throw-back to the inflated self-image of the past. It seems to be neither enduring nor intrinsic to our worth. Pakistan and India are being assigned different roles: Pakistan as a partner and India as an ally. Indeed, Pakistan's partnership is aimed not only at soliciting its help in the war against terrorism but also in its own move towards building a more open and tolerant society. In other words, Pakistan could both be a partner and a target, an ambiguity that clearly has a potential for friction in the future relationship which could turn adversarial.

There is no such ambiguity in the relationship with India where "the US interests require a strong relationship" and where two sides "share an interest in fighting terrorism and creating strategically stable Asia" as stated in the US document "The National Security of the United States" released last year. The document goes on to say: "today we start with a view of India as a growing world power with which we have common strategic interests" and ... (can) "shape dynamic future".

The relationship with India is thus long-term, strategic, broad based, predictable and with a strong mutuality of interests. Ours seems to be narrowly-based aimed at achieving specifically designated and identified, and possibly short term, objectives.

Broadly speaking, the United States considers its relations with both India and Pakistan as important, for similar as well as different reasons. Whereas with India the US seeks friendship, with us it seeks influence. To put it facetiously, the difference is perhaps similar to the one between "marriage" and "engagement".

The United States would like to engage Pakistan to have influence or leverage for reasons that transcend the imperative of fighting terrorism. The US would like Pakistan not to be a threat to India's stability. It is also interested in restraining Pakistan's nuclear and missile ambitions and keeping peace between Pakistan and India.

It does not want to see us in a position where we could challenge the pre-eminent status of India that is being increasingly perceived by the West as a factor of stability in the region. But at the same time it would not be in US interest that Pakistan succumb to Indian hegemony.

To use an over-used expression, India card is being played against China and Pakistan card is being played against India. The only problem is it has happened so often in the past, like in the game of bridge, that the US could "discard" Pakistan much more easily.

The future relationship between Pakistan and the United States could, however, feel the effects of many variables. One important consideration for the future of US-Pakistan relations, for instance, could be the stance of the political dispensation in Pakistan. A reluctant or ineffectual role by Pakistan, under-pinned by political constraints of the political government responding to popular discontent, fed by religious sentiments or nationalist impulses, could cause strains in the relationship. So far the government has stayed in line.

There are similar uncertainties on the US side. The present resurgence in the US-Pakistan relationship is not rooted in any long-term strategic alliance. It is a "coalition of the willing" in pursuit of some specific and limited aims . Like the co-operation during the Afghan jihad, it has a strong Pentagon and intelligence dimension and is being guided if not directed, by the White House. Once the short-term objectives are realized, the relationship will revert to the uncertain care of the state department. The imposition of the Pressler Amendment, in similar circumstances more than a decade ago, is a grim reminder of what could possibly happen in future.

We have to keep in mind that if there is a change in the White House in 2004, we could possibly see some re-thinking of the campaign against terrorism, which has been at the heart of the revival of US-Pakistan relations.

There is yet another imponderable. With a new design of political landscape of Iraq in the works, present setbacks notwithstanding, the United States is obviously aiming to convert that country into an ally, a kind of back-up to Saudi Arabia. This would add a whole new dimension to the American presence in the region, one effect, intended or unintended, of which will be Iran's sense of encirclement by American presence all around it. All this will hold some implications for Pakistan.

Finally, the relationship could feel the impact of Kashmir. The American, or for that matter, broader western concern about the Kashmir dispute is not so much on account of the merits of the issue as due to the fact that the unresolved dispute has the potential to destabilize India, fuel tensions between Pakistan and India - with the possible risk of a war that could conceivably turn nuclear.

The US indeed will face another problem in the event of an India-Pakistan war. It will have to stand up and be counted in Pakistan, as the public would expect US support in the conflict like in the historical past. The US will not be able to do that, and that can have a backlash. Apart from the risk of war the US feels that the unresolved Kashmir dispute would continue to fuel religious militancy and impede the war on terrorism.

US diplomacy may have played some ancillary role in getting India to start talking again, but its role in the solution of the Kashmir dispute, I am afraid, begins and ends here, for all practical purposes, rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding. In the world of diplomats, often the language has no relationship with the reality, and invariably with a purpose.

In the last analysis it would largely be up to India and Pakistan to resolve their tensions and start living normally. Peace will only strengthen them, specially Pakistan. And only a strong Pakistan can have normal and autonomous relations with the outside world, specially with the United States. Otherwise the US-Pakistan relations will continue to be burdened by inflated expectations and misperceptions about mutual interests and obligations, causing cyclic waves of disappointments that have marked their entire history of friendship.

Each side, specially Pakistan, needs to bring its aspirations in line with the national interests of the other to minimize failed expectations. The United States has its national interests and we have our own. They con-verge partially and not all the times.

The US moves in its orbit, which is global, and we move in our own. The US does not have to agree with everything we do and we, on our part, do not have to be despondent or critical of everything it does. We cooperate to the extent we can in our mutual interests.

There should be no expectation of inherent goodness or fear of betrayal on either side. We have to release the relationship from emotional burden and weight of the past to put it in true perspective.

The writer is a former ambassador.