A symbiotic relationship

Published on May 3, 2006 in the Dawn

The debate focusing on US-Pakistan relations has been marked by great analysis but has left behind some troubling questions about our approach to the relationship. Pakistan.s ties with the US continue to be filtered through our perceptions of India. These perceptions have failed to break through our traditional assumptions of parity with our neighbour. But the growing gap between Pakistan and India is obvious to the rest of the world that deals with each country according to its own merits. This we regard as a great betrayal, which is how we perceive the recent Bush visit to the region.

Over time, our criticism of the US has accumulated many new themes as an idiom of resentment against our US-centric leadership and as an expression of nationalism under the impact of the Iranian revolution and the rise of religious extremism. Post-9/11, it has merged with the rising wave of anti-Americanism in the Islamic world.

Yet the dynamics of US-Pakistan relations and the discriminatory US approach to India and Pakistan have been at the heart of our feelings towards America. A brief history will explain the issues.

At the time of independence Pakistan was deeply conscious of the power disparity in the subcontinent and looked for ways to redress it. The viability of the state was at stake compelling Pakistan to look in the direction of the US, which in turn was trying to promote a strategic consensus of non-communist Asian states to check the expanding lines of communist influence.

Pakistan opted to become a close ally of the US as its assistance established a semblance of balance of power in the region. The US co-opted Pakistan because of its inability to woo India. Although the relationship did serve the critical interests of the two countries, from time to time it reflected the absence of a long-term policy based on a larger conceptual framework, a shared vision or continuity.

Both sides gave to it more than what they got. The United States strengthened Pakistan.s defence capabilities and potential for economic development that gave critical help in stabilising the emergent state. But in doing so it also helped encourage undemocratic tendencies in Pakistan, as US patronage of the military caused the latter to raise its national profile which came to dominate the country.s politics through a pro-western alliance of conservative forces, including the Islamists. The US itself did not escape the negative fallout which caused complications in its relationship with India and thwarted its opposition to Pakistan.s nuclear programme . two important strategic objectives from its perspective. The Pakistan-US alliance during the Afghan war prospered . though under the darkening shadow of the forces that would later come to threaten them both.

No wonder the relationship has never enjoyed broad-based public support or endorsement of the strategic community in the US except during the heady days of the Cold War. Afterwards it continued to face one stumbling block after another because of Pakistan.s relations with China, the issue of democracy and our nuclear programme. There was of course the theme that never went away, that is Indo-Pakistan tensions and concerns about an arms race in the subcontinent.

Over the years, many in the US Congress have had serious reservations about Pakistan. So the seeds for a de-hyphenated relationship go far back. Indeed the de-coupling of US relations with India and Pakistan had begun way back in 1962 at the time of the Sino-Indian war, and continued imperceptibly, working sometimes to India.s benefit, and sometimes to Pakistan.s. It remained an underlying determinant of US policy in South Asia until former President Bill Clinton brought it out into the open. So in essence the US has all along followed separate tracks in its relations with India and Pakistan, responding to different needs and rationales.

While as a superpower it was easy for the US to weave in and out of Pakistan, the latter became addicted to the relationship as it served more than our national interests. It served the ends of our political leadership and the elite, civilian and military, could not be weaned away from it. This dependency syndrome was fostered in part by the need to fall back on help from a big power to occasionally bail out the country from the ill effects of bad governance, and in part by fears stoked by America.s overwhelming power with which it often trampled on Third World countries that did not do its bidding.

The myth that nothing moves in these countries without US approval lives on. So does the corollary that everything wrong in these places is America.s fault, an impression instigated by the leadership itself to divert dangerous currents of social discontent and political opposition. So the relationship has undergone much distortion over the years.

While the US has often treated Pakistan unfairly, even in a highhanded manner, it must be said that the public grudge against America for not supporting Pakistan against India in 1965 and 1971 is misplaced. A close scrutiny of US treaty obligations to Pakistan leave no doubt that the historical US commitments were essentially in the context of a communist threat to Pakistans security.

The 1959 agreement on bilateral cooperation clearly says that in case of aggression against Pakistan, .the Government of the United States in accordance with the constitution of the US will take such appropriate action including the use of armed forces as may be mutually agreed upon and is envisaged in the joint resolution to promote peace and stability in the Middle East. in order to assist the government of Pakistan at its request.

The joint resolution on the Middle East speaks of only one eventuality of the US coming to the aid of a country under aggression, and that is in the event of communist aggression.

That was in the past but what about the present? President Musharraf has stimulated a debate on reforms, and thanks to the economic policies and management of Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, Pakistan has registered an impressive growth rate. But credit should also go to the US and its allies for lending such critical support to these efforts. Yet the US-Pakistan engagement, and the military-dominated political dispensation, which feed on each other, have increased the potential for both good and harm for Pakistan.

Partly because of this alliance and partly because of some global forces that are shaping our history many powerful ideas that move men and define a nation.s life have come into play in Pakistan. These pertain to religion, nationalism, democracy, ethnicity and regionalism, and above all pressures for reform, modernisation and social consensus. The direction of change, however, remains unclear.

Pakistan.s role in the war on terrorism, for instance, has aroused strong feelings in tribal and feudal societies in smaller provinces stimulating regionalist tendencies. The war on terrorism, being seen as an assault on Islam, has also raised the profile of the Islamists complicating our debate about national priorities.

The two countries are conscious of this narrow focus on terrorism and are trying to make the relationship broad based and long lasting. This was the objective of the recent dialogue between the Pakistan foreign secretary and state department officials in Washington which reportedly went well. Broadened cooperation with Pakistan is geared to meets its reform requirements as well as the US objective of a stable and moderate Pakistan that seeks a cooperative and tension-free relationship with India and Afghanistan to promote America.s larger economic and strategic interests in the region.

As to the future, one can only speculate. My own view is that both Pakistan and the US are heading for a period of transition that will have some repercussions for their relationship. Both Bush and Musharraf will fade away. Pakistan.s internal dynamics are reaching a critical stage because of the 2007 elections, while in the US the Republicans are likely to lose their majority in the House in the 2006 mid-term elections and a Democrat will be making a strong bid for the White House in 2008.

These changes, along with the outcome of the Iraq war and the Iran crisis, may turn out to be watershed events in America affecting the war on terrorism and Washington.s approach to Pakistan.

Terrorism may in time be reduced to one of the regular threats that can be addressed with a range of normal military, intelligence, and foreign policy options. Pakistan.s cooperation in this war will still be needed but not so critically that the US may have to trump its other important interests. US dependence on Musharraf may well decrease as the scaled-down level of cooperation can equally be provided by a civilian leadership despite political constraints. Indeed Musharraf may himself become less compliant to US demands in the war on terrorism.

So the democratisation pressure by Washington will increase if the US feels that the present hybrid system and Pakistan.s potential de-politicisation threatens its stability and enhances the prospects of the Islamists. In any event, the US would not like to be identified too closely with Musharraf.s personal ambitions.

On the other hand, if Washington feels that it is the present system and not full democracy that ensures Pakistan.s stability and that Pakistan.s cooperation in the war on terrorism is still needed it will not rock the boat. For now, the army remains America.s best bet. But nobody knows what is going to happen in Pakistan in the future.

However, one thing is clear. The US cannot afford to walk away this time because its policies towards Pakistan have to be integrated with critical US policy choices in the region. India may offer the United States great economic and strategic opportunities, but it is Pakistan.s internal dynamics and relationship with India that have been at the root of challenges to US foreign policy in South Asia. The US will remain engaged though its pressure on Pakistan to conform to American policies in the region will increase.

Will the US agree to cooperate with Pakistan in the field of civilian nuclear energy? No, not now and even less so in future. Does this make the relationship any less valuable for us? Not as long as it continues to serve some other important national interests of ours. In a strange irony both Pakistan and US have historically been part of the problem and part of the solution for each other and this paradigm is unlikely to change.