Moving on


Pakistan and the United States are encountering serious difficulties in their relations at a time when the leaders of both countries do not have easy alternatives to working together for stabilising Afghanistan, improving Pakistan’s economy, eliminating terrorism in the region and reducing US/NATO military presence in Afghanistan. Their deep mutual concerns are not going to disappear and it seems that their leaders will continue to maintain working relations while viewing each other both as the part of the problem and the solution. This will keep them going together despite periodic mutual recriminations.
The key policymakers of Pakistan and the US have ignored one basic principle of international politics that bilateral cooperation is based on shared ideas and trade-offs. The greater the sharing of goals and strategies, the more will be harmony and cooperation in bilateral interaction. However, the US and Pakistan are endeavouring to impose their individual national goals on each other. They are looking for conformism rather than partnership. The US expects Pakistan to undertake counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency as desired by its military. Pakistan expects the US to accommodate its security concerns and preferences in its policy options. This divergence causes frustration on both sides. The US accuses Pakistan of double-crossing and Pakistan views the US as imposing its security preferences on Pakistan. They need to focus on the shared space and try to expand it rather than engage in public recrimination.
The power elite in both countries want to protect their positions within their respective domestic contexts while pursuing their agendas in and around Afghanistan. The Obama Administration faces serious domestic economic pressures with relatively high unemployment, budget and debt problems that often generate criticism of the expenditure on military expeditions abroad, especially Afghanistan. Therefore, it would like to obtain some credible military successes in Afghanistan while undertaking gradual withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan later this year. It naturally wants the fullest cooperation from Pakistan for countering the Afghan groups based in Pakistani tribal areas, especially in North Waziristan. Domestic considerations become important for the Obama Administration as the presidential campaign takes off towards the end of the year.
Pakistan’s domestic political system faces more complex and varied challenges. It is not merely the question of survival of democracy and revival of the economy, the issue of power relations among the key domestic actors influences domestic and foreign policy output. The military establishment feels that the US administration periodically endeavours to weaken its primacy in Pakistan’s domestic political context by propaganda against its role for countering terrorism, specific provision regarding the Pakistan military and the ISI in the Kerry-Lugar-Berman law, unilateral military actions in Pakistani territory that humiliate the military and intelligence authorities within Pakistan. The army top brass and the ISI want the CIA to restrict its autonomous activities in Pakistan and want to return to the relationship between the ISI and the CIA as it existed in the 1980s when the latter did not operate autonomously, or adopt the strategy of joint operations as these existed in the immediate aftermath of September 2001.
The Pakistan military is sensitive to anti-America popular sentiments in Pakistan but it also manipulates public opinion to its advantage in its efforts to protect its primacy against external and internal pressures. Pakistan’s military-intelligence establishment has periodically invoked Islamist circles and the political far-right to protect its domestic clout and counter what it perceives to be U.S. pressure. However, in the long run, this strategy strengthens those that are opposed to the military’s security operations in the tribal areas.
Two other domestic factors adversely affect Pakistan’s counter-terrorism efforts. First, the dividends of the funding under the Kerry-Lugar-Berman law have not really reached the common persons. The first year of this funding is almost over but only a fraction of allocation has been disbursed. Consequently, there is nothing credible known of the public domain of the social and economic projects under this funding.
Second, the poor performance of Pakistan’s civilian government has undermined its popular credibility to the extent that it is not in position to offer a narrative of the events that counters the well-known Islamic perspective and it is unable to defend counter-terrorism policies and relations with the US. It is unable to evolve domestic consensus on the need to take action against the militant groups based in North Waziristan in contrast to the consensus developed in Pakistan for taking action in Swat in 2009. It is unable to sway public opinion in favour of its official policy of “owning” counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency undertaken by the military.
There is another constraint on Pakistan-US relations. Pakistan, like Israel, has developed a garrison state mentality fearing that any mistake will threaten its existence. This is unlike India which is secure in its existence.
It is not surprising that Pakistan’s official and non-official circles are perturbed by the official and non-official media campaign in the US against Pakistan in the aftermath of the Abbottabad operation. What causes much anxiety is that India joined the campaign for declaring Pakistan as a terrorist state and its army chief argued that India could conduct an Abbottabad-style operation against terrorist targets in Pakistan.
The disposition of the Afghanistan government is intriguing. The Karzai government maintains cordial relations with Pakistan and seeks its cooperation for dialogue with some Taliban elements. However, its officials and others close to the Kabul government lobby for the US to declare Pakistan as a terrorist state and argue for strategic cooperation among Afghanistan, India and the US, to the exclusion of Pakistan.
Afghan domestic politics explains the dichotomy between the official Afghan policy and what its official do. The present Kabul government, the bureaucracy and the military are dominated by the Northern Alliance (mainly Tajik and Uzbek). The officials are scared that any Pakistani role in shaping the post-US future of Afghanistan and any settlement with the Taliban would increase Pashtun role in Afghanistan. This is bound to diminish the Tajik and Uzbek domination. Therefore, Tajik and Uzbek officials engage in anti-Pakistan propaganda.
Pakistan-US relations are complex and involve regional and domestic considerations and there is often a divergence in the priorities. There are no easy solutions. Such a complex relationship can be managed effectively by patient, continuous and multi-layered dialogue. American and Pakistani officials should step into each other’s shoes to understand each other’s aspirations, security fears and perceived realities.

The writer is an independent political and defence analyst.