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
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
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