Nov 12, 2009

Beyond the Clinton visit

By Talat Masood

The positive momentum generated by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit has to be sustained and enhanced to take it to its logical end of placing the Pakistan-US relationship on a mature and mutually beneficial basis. This is vital in the long-term interests of both countries. Pakistan's security, economic growth, global image and relations with the western world and India are greatly influenced by how it relates with the US. For America, Pakistan is a pivotal country for its security, geo-strategic position, Islamic character and nuclear prowess. If Pakistan were to triumph in its present national struggle, the US realises that it would transform the dynamics of the region and make it a model for the Muslim world.

Until recently, in our dealings with Washington we have been guided more by emotion than rationality; something that has become part of our national culture despite being clearly detrimental to our national interests. The reason for this warped attitude is that foreign and defence policy has never been subjected to an institutional decision-making process and dictated mostly by the military. If national interests were thoroughly debated and subjected to a rigorous analysis in parliament, think tanks, the Foreign Office and the military, the emotional content would have gradually filtered out. In the absence of the institutional process, we have not been clear as to what exactly our expectations are from the US apart from ad-hoc piecemeal demands. The disconnect had reached a point where conspiracy theories reached a stage of paranoia and absurdity.

The US too was stereotyping Pakistan from the prism of A Q Khan's proliferation network, Al Qaeda's presence in the tribal belt, terrorism, clandestine military support of the Afghan Taliban and our wayward spending of US assistance. These are serious issues but pushing them beyond the envelope and overlooking major positive developments within Pakistan have not been helpful. Pakistan's efforts at tightening nuclear safety and security were being deliberately underplayed. The difference in security perceptions were perceived as deception instead of harmonising policies through a process of honest dialogue. Although valid questions of the accountability of US taxpayers' money were raised, still Pakistan's enormous sacrifices in terms of loss of life, property and investment remained unnoticed. Moreover, the emergence of a robust civil society, an active media, independent judiciary and an awakened public were being disregarded. Instead, Pakistan and the ISI were being deliberately targeted as international scapegoats.

In contrast, the American policies in Pakistan are viewed as anti-Islamic and anti-Pakistan. Anti-Americanism has reached self-destructive proportions and conspiracy theories are all the rage. The benefit of being a US ally is thus undermined and the trust deficit keeps mounting. It is in this backdrop that Secretary Clinton's visit can be helpful by arresting these negative trends and moving the process forward.

There are several areas in which Washington and Islamabad have to work closely to optimise the relationship. There is deep scepticism in Pakistan as to how the US campaign in Afghanistan is evolving. What exactly the US wants to achieve in Afghanistan is a question on the minds of many people. In its open-ended pursuit of eliminating the threat posed by Al Qaeda, the US has only strengthened the Afghan Taliban, and further destabilised FATA and settled parts of Pakistan. In the new US strategy, Pakistan should have a stake and be a partner. So far it has been marginally consulted, although it has suffered the most from instability in Afghanistan.

Counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan have a chance of success if there is a deep understanding of the local conditions and Pakistan can be a great help in that effort. On the other hand, Pakistan has to be clear regarding the type of relations it wants to maintain with the Afghan Taliban to protect its own interests, without compromising its own as well as Afghan interests. Pakistan, apart from being sensitive to US and Afghan interests, has to figure out how its support of the Afghan Taliban has promoted radicalism within its borders, created conditions for Al Qaeda to have a sanctuary and nurtured its own brand of extremists. Nonetheless, it is not an easy decision for Islamabad for if the US counter-insurgency effort were to fail, we can land with a hostile Taliban on our borders. Pakistan will have to share these concerns with Washington and nuance its policy accordingly. Maintaining links with the Taliban is not as much for hedging against Indian hegemony as it is to prepare for this unpleasant contingency.

Hopefully, the micro-management phase of Pakistan by the US will soon be over. Close cooperation combined with discreet advice and even pressure at times for the common good can be justified. But a client-master relationship is no more tenable in a transformed Pakistan.

The US is clearly interested in the economic progress, political stability and security of Pakistan but the type of discourse that one experiences during conferences or meetings with US officials, academia and the media especially is extremely negative. This has serious consequences in terms of developing trust and is damaging Pakistan's economy as it hurts investment. Both countries, in order to satisfy domestic constituencies, take hard positions against each other in public that widens the trust gap.

Clubbing Afghanistan with Pakistan was a big mistake. Pakistan perceives its security problems more holistically and closely linked with India and normalisation of relations with it would have a transformational impact on the region. This by no means implies that Pakistan can afford any let-up in its efforts to counter the existential threat posed by the coercive Taliban ideology and pervasive radicalism of society.

A major trust-building move would be if the US would truly reconcile with Pakistan as a nuclear weapons state. This could take a form similar to the US-India nuclear deal at least in principle, for it is understandable that the A Q Khan legacy is still too fresh to be set aside. The constant flow of speculation that emanates from western sources of nuclear assets falling in the hands of militants has given rise to a state bordering on paranoia in the Pakistani psyche. Finally, we have to remind ourselves what Hillary Clinton said: "relations with Pakistan are two-way traffic" and that we cannot have the cake and eat it too.

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