Nov 22, 2009

A diplomatic surge’

By Ziad Haider

US secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s three-day visit to Islamabad and Lahore highlighted the ongoing challenge of conducting diplomacy in Pakistan. The fact that Pakistan’s partnership is vital to US security, and yet 64 percent of Pakistanis view the United States as an enemy, represents no small challenge for the Americans. As the White House reassesses its “Af-Pak” strategy, it must clearly define US interests in Pakistan and chart a new course in the relationship that places a greater emphasis on diplomacy.

The US has two vital interests in Pakistan. The first is to combat extremism. This includes Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the associated domestic terrorist groups that threaten Pakistan’s stability.

The second is to ensure regional stability, for three reasons: to avoid a conflict between Pakistan and India, which would force Pakistan to redeploy troops from west to east, distracting it from the war in Afghanistan; to avoid an Indo-Pakistani conflict that may escalate up the nuclear chain; and to improve regional relations so that Pakistan no longer feels the need to retain militant proxies as leverage against its neighbours.

In combating extremism, the US has been relatively successful at securing Pakistani operational support in Afghanistan, including the transit of vital supplies; getting Pakistan to eliminate key Al Qaeda leaders; and nudging it to confront internal threats, such as those in the Swat Valley.

While domestic dynamics have driven many of these decisions, US diplomacy has played a role. These successes were accomplished through a mix of coercive and soft diplomacy, ranging from a “with us or against us” choice at the onset of the invasion of Afghanistan to the lifting of sanctions and generous provision of military assistance.

On regional stability, the US has successfully engaged in short-term crisis-management. These include external crises, such as the 2001-2002 Indo-Pakistani military mobilisation and the more recent standoff between the civilian government and opposition over the restoration of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. Breakthroughs were respectively possible due to high-level and intensive interventions by Secretary of State Colin Powell and by Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Yet, US diplomacy has also failed in significant measure. The US has been unable to alter the Pakistani army’s strategic calculus. The army continues to retain the Taliban and other militant groups as a hedging strategy against Pakistan’s neighbours and a seemingly inevitable US drawdown.

US diplomacy has also been unable to generate support among Pakistanis who harbour deep grievances: historic US support for military rule in Pakistan, “abandonment” and sanctions in the nineties, the invasion of Afghanistan, the drone strikes, and US policies in the Middle East. This tortured, and at times distorted, public narrative has impeded robust cooperation with Pakistan’s fragile democratic government.

Lastly, the US has failed to take a long-term view in addressing regional dynamics. Historic fissures remain, such as the border dispute between Pakistan and Afghanistan and Indo-Pakistani grievances, including Kashmir. The military imperative of fighting a war in Afghanistan has eclipsed the diplomatic imperative of tackling the root causes of insecurity in the region.

So how does the US leverage diplomacy to strengthen its relationship with Pakistan based on “mutual interest and mutual respect?” Here are four key elements to consider.

First, US diplomacy must focus on the Pakistani people. The Kerry-Lugar Bill that tripled economic aid was an important start; patience and public diplomacy are required to reap the dividends.

Second, the US must also advance the resolution of core regional issues, including supporting the resumption of the Indo-Pakistani composite dialogue as well as an eventual Af-Pak dialogue on the status of the Durand Line.

Third, the US must manage the visibility/invisibility paradox. This entails maintaining a lower profile to avoid being overly intrusive. At the same time, the US must be sufficiently visible to secure the public dividend of development initiatives and to demonstrate sustained engagement. As reflected in the Kerry-Lugar debate, the US must also walk the fine legislative line between accountability for taxpayer money and perceived dictation infringing on Pakistani sovereignty.

Lastly, however, the US must be honest about why Pakistan matters. Stretching back through the Cold War, the US has always seen Pakistan through a security lens. This raises an inescapable question: can the relationship ever be sustainable if it pivots on avoiding negative outcomes instead of achieving positive ones? The way this question is answered or reframed will define the bilateral relationship beyond the current crisis of the hour.

For now, a democratic and prosperous Pakistan, at peace with itself and its neighbours, is critical for US national security. To this end, as in Afghanistan, the US is essentially fighting a form of counter-insurgency in Pakistan — minus the troops. This further necessitates a surge in US diplomacy toward Pakistan to secure a more willing and able partner.

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