The new US State Secretary


Role of leadership in Pak-US relations

Foreign and security policies of a country are shaped by the threat perceptions of the power elite and their articulation of national interests and concerns. These acquire salience in the psyche of the nation and the state system gradually. Therefore, threat perceptions and national concern do not change quickly. As the new kinds of threats arise, like the terrorist attacks in the US in September 2001, the threat perception is updated. The new threat is viewed in addition to the old threats unless the global and regional environment changes drastically.

What is the role of personalities? The threat perception is articulated by the dominant elite. Their composition and disposition is important. However, once the broad parameters of security are agreed upon, changes do not take place quickly with the change of person making or managing foreign and security policies. The changes are made through small steps, like tactical changes. If the results of such changes are positive then real shift, strategic changes, takes place.

Even if the broad parameters of security and foreign policy are not changed, the leaders can exercise initiative in strategies for achieving the national policy goals. Many issues are important with reference to the role of individuals: How a leader or diplomat conducts himself/herself? How persuasive is a person in advocating the policy plank? Diplomacy involves personal relationship and an understanding of different dimensions of issues in a particular context. The shared objectives can be achieved through various ways. The competence of the leader or diplomat is determined by the decision to adopt a course of action that serves the national interest.

The new US Secretary of State, John Kerry, will be piloting US foreign policy within the above constraints. No major shift is expected in US foreign policy but John Kerry’s disposition, experience and diplomatic style will play a role in the strategies that the US is going to adopt in the second Obama term to protect and advance its interest in global affairs.

The political circles in Pakistan have welcomed John Kerry’s appointment because he has been dealing with the Pakistan-United States relations for years. As the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he presided over the Committee’s hearings on Pakistan and undertook several visits to Pakistan. His last visit related to the Raymond Davis issue in February 2011.

The year 2011 was the most troubled year in the history of Pakistan-US relations. The improvement of these relations began in July 2012 and by December 2012 these relations had returned to normal interaction. Thus, when John Kerry assumes office in January 2013, the worst period in Pakistan-US relations is already over. However, there are many issues and questions that the new Secretary of State will have to address.

The challenging task for the new Secretary of State is how to ensure the sustainability of the revived Pakistan-US relations against the widely shared fears of internal strife and instability in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the withdrawal of NATO/US troops from there. This instability is bound to spillover to Pakistan’s tribal areas that house a host of militant Islamic groups that aim at overwhelming the Pakistani state.

Pakistan talks of “responsible” US withdrawal from Afghanistan which implies that the US would not leave Afghanistan in a state of internal security, political and economic turmoil.

The US government will soon have to decide about the retention some troops in Afghanistan in a non-combat role like training and sideline support to the Afghan sign National Army. An allied issue is how may bases the US would retain for its personnel?

The most challenging task is ensuring peace and stability in Afghanistan to the extent that the Kabul government can cope with the Taliban pressure and retain its primacy at least in cities and towns and the adjoining areas. The Afghan National Army and the Police have been trained over the last three years and their number is expected to cross three hundred thousand by 2014 but there are serious doubts about the professional capacity of the Afghan National Army to face a long drawn guerrilla type non-conventional war by various Taliban groups.

It is important that the US, Afghanistan and Pakistan develop a shared approach with greater coordination for combating terrorism, ensuring stability and security and helping the Afghan economy.

In the past, the US interest was how to stop movement of militant groups from Pakistani tribal areas to Afghanistan for attacks on US and Afghan installations and personnel. It pressed Pakistan hard for initiating military operations against the Haqqani group based in North Waziristan. Afghanistan shared this US concern and often used Pakistan to externalise its internal problems. Pakistan complained about the presence of Pakistani militants in Nooristan and Kunar provinces of Afghanistan from where they launched attacks in Pakistani areas.

Such a segmented approach needs to be replaced with a comprehensive approach for ensuring security and stability in the borderland on both sides of Pakistan-Afghan border. The militants move in both direction across the border and the three governments would have to coordinate their borderland policies. If the safe-havens in Pakistan’s tribal areas are to be eradicated, Pakistan’s concerns of what happens on the Afghan side of the border needs to be taken into account. Mutual cooperation is a better strategy than applying unilateral pressures on Pakistan or denouncing it in public.

Pakistan is now working with Afghanistan and the US for ensuring stability in the post-withdrawal Afghanistan. It is facilitating the Kabul government’s effort to initiate a dialogue with some Taliban and other insurgent groups.

The other issue relevant to the US is the Afghan economy in the post-withdrawal period. Once most US/NATO troops withdraw, a good part of the troops related support activity will come to an end, resulting in loss of jobs and livelihood for a large number of urban based educated Afghans. The Afghan economy, especially in the rural areas, is in shambles. If the insurgent groups are to be weakened the economy must support the population in towns and rural areas.

Pakistan’s economy also needs US support because a downward sliding economy cannot reformulate the pro-religious orthodoxy and militancy mindset that pervades Pakistan’s state and society.

Multiple challenges await the new US Secretary of State. It is hoped that while pursuing US national interests he will be sensitive to Pakistan’s terrorism related problems and its concern about the impact of the situation in Afghanistan on Pakistan’s security and stability.

The writer is an independent political and defence analyst.


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