Future of US-Pakistan relations

Published on Feb 23, 2006 in the Dawn

AS President Bush heads for South Asia, a look at the strategic direction of US relations with India and Pakistan will be timely. In Pakistan, our self-image and worldview has been anchored in a belief that the rest of the world should look at India through our eyes.

For years we have measured others. friendship on a scale of their relations with India. The fact is India has a place in the world, and its growing ties with the US only reflect this reality which we must not resent.

As for our own relations with the United States, while Washington may have loomed large in our foreign policy the reverse is not true and cannot be. Relations between a big power and a small country are always imbalanced, and those between Pakistan and the US have been particularly so, for many reasons.

Firstly, US-Pakistan engagements have been single issue relationships that have prospered in the neglect of some of their other vital interests. Secondly, being a weaker party, Pakistan.s loss has been heavier. Pakistan did not get the best value for its services as much of the US help was non-monetary by way of political support to military regimes which was no doubt priced into the deal. In more ways than one, the legitimacy for such regimes thus came at the country.s expense.

It is not a good idea to concentrate political power and determination of national interests and priorities in a single institution with a legitimacy problem. President Musharraf is to be commended for bringing a modicum of stability to the country and igniting a debate on the need for reforms. But this does not obscure the fact that while people may welcome, and indeed tolerate, for some time, military interventions in national affairs for damage control and stabilization, they would not endorse its long-term appropriation of political power.

Serious problems of the country require a fully fledged and autonomous political process, however imperfect, and also policies that rely on national effort at issue solving rather than on external help that may force us to make flawed compromises on our vital interests.

There has been another problem in the US Pakistan relationship. Pakistan has traditionally responded to regional impulses, and the United States to global dynamics. As a superpower it has also been neither compelling nor easy for the United States to harmonize its strategic and tactical goals, short- and long-term agenda, and global and regional interests.

As a consequence, US Pakistan ties have lacked continuity, a larger conceptual framework, and a broad shared vision. It is no wonder, then, that as soon as the United States achieved its objectives vis-.-vis Pakistan in past engagements, US Pakistan policy consensus would break down.

The current US engagement with Pakistan shares some of the past weaknesses. But South Asia has changed due to the post Cold War world, globalization and the war on terrorism, and so has the basis of US relations with it. In the past, the region was the focus of US interest because of the threat from outside to inside. The threat now is from inside to outside to which, as the US sees it, Pakistan has contributed significantly both with its internal dynamics and external behaviour.

An unstable Pakistan fosters militancy, endangers its nuclear assets, raises the potential for conflict with India over Kashmir, and threatens its own internal cohesion. But India compels attention with the projection of its military power, marked economic and technological achievement and potential, its democratic structure, aspirations for a big power status, and as the likely balancer to a resurgent China and a factor of stability in South Asia and its periphery. It thus offers US great strategic and economic opportunities.

There are not only strategic incentives but compulsions as well for the US to woo India. America may have become the sole superpower but its grip over its allies has loosened. Europe has become too autonomous, and the Middle East is in the grip of a religious based revisionism making its future relations with the US uncertain.

If America is looking for a back-up sphere of influence and source of energy now, why not go to a country and a region that is seeking US help and patronage . India in realizing its big power ambitions, Pakistan in its salvation from chronic weaknesses and consequences of a profligate living, and Central Asia in balancing the weight and influence of China and Russia? The object may well be not only to facilitate the emergence of a Central and South Asian integrated market that will enhance the potential for US trade and investment but also pursue a policy of benign encirclement of China and containment of Russia by courting countries on their periphery.

But regrettably, Pakistan and Afghanistan are an impediment as potential source of instability and extremism that not only impact on global security but also threaten India, the centrepiece of future US policies, in the region.

For more than five decades, Pakistan has figured in US foreign policy in various forms . a staunch ally, a troublesome friend or a threat. Now, for the first time, it is all of these things. While India presents to the US a great opportunity, Pakistan is a big challenge. While India is an asset, Pakistan is a liability. Pakistan diminishes the prospects of US strategic interests in the region, and along with Afghanistan, it is at the root of policy issues the US faces in the region.

Afghanistan and Pakistan occupy a pivotal place in America.s war on terrorism specially the part aimed at the decimation of Al Qaeda and emasculation of the Taliban. The United States is doing so directly in Afghanistan but indirectly in Pakistan. Contrary to public perceptions of any American unhappiness with Pakistan.s support in the war on terrorism and Pakistan.s .anger. at incidents such as Bajaur, the two sides have so far been comfortable with the existing perimeters of their cooperation.

Statements to the contrary are for domestic consumption on both sides and meant as a pressure tactic. Pakistan is cooperating but may not want to know everything so as to retain the option of plausible deniability. But future troubles cannot be ruled out.

There will be other problems to come. Since US Pakistan relations have merged with Pakistan.s own reform effort, America.s evolving economic and strategic relationship with the region, the war on terrorism, nuclear proliferation and Iran, many variables have come to play on Pakistan, and may affect the country.s future.

The war on terrorism, for instance, has created as many problems for us as it has solved. Firstly, Pakistan may be played out of Afghanistan strategically. Secondly, it is clear the US is trying to create a new balance of power in Afghanistan unduly weighted against the Pashtuns, being seen as prone to extremist influences and more tolerant of the Taliban and, by virtue of their presence on both sides of the border, providing a sanctuary to them in Pakistan.