Washington has to develop its strategic significance beyond the realm of security to build leverage Vis-à-Vis Islamabad
Generally, a marked confusion has defined bilateral relations between the United States and Pakistan’s. Historically, although there were multiple phases of intense bilateral engagement and disengagement, mainly the association has been characterized as based on mutual distrust and manipulation.
The fundamental problem with US’s policy towards Pakistan is not with its relentless push to achieve its national security interests in the region, particularly in Pakistan; rather, it’s primarily with how limited and poorly defined these interests are. Moreover, partially it is blamed on Washington’s inability to understand or pay heed to Pakistan’s own strategic security interests.
Thus far, almost every U.S. engagement with Pakistan has been issue specific, tailored to meet short-term or limited goals and of a tactical nature. The engagement was rarely based on any shared perspectives and divergence of interests has mainly headlined the partnership.
For instance, President Pervez Musharraf’s ability to keep up the juggling act between handing over a number of Al-Qaida militants to the U.S. and comfortably resisting action against various other Islamist groups based in the country was in a way encouraged by Washington
At times, Pakistan was described by Washington as its ‘most allied ally’ in Asia; on other occasions, however, it was called the ‘U.S’s most sanctioned ally.’ While during most of the 1990s, Pakistan remained buried under the U.S. imposed sanctions over a host of issues ranging from the country’s drive to obtain nuclear weapons to lack of democracy, there were episodes of deep collaboration when the military directly ruled the country. In fact, the military regimes were publicly endorsed, supported and showered with millions of dollars in aids.
Following the post 9/11 decade, the U.S.’s “rules of engagement” with Pakistan have remained the same: Washington has continued to look at Islamabad through the prism of its own narrowly defined security interests. To enlist the Pakistani cooperation, the U.S. has regularly used threats of various kinds, ranging from military to economic. In the aftermath of 9/11, President Bush is reportedly known to have threatened the then Pakistani President, Pervez Musharraf, with bombing his country “back to the stone age” unless he supported the U.S. led War on Terror.
For instance, the U.S.’s dense military and economic engagement in Afghanistan that had surged in the wake of the Soviet Union’s invasion of the latter in 1979 abruptly vanished after the collapse of the Soviet Union, leaving behind a broken economy, a thriving Jihadist network and a disintegrated institutional infrastructure. In the aftermath of the U.S. disengagement in Afghanistan, the leadership in Pakistan who had cooperated with Washington to prop up much of the Jihadist infrastructure to curtail the Soviet Union’s advancement neither had the resources, nor willingness to dismantle and disrupt these militant networks. The bankruptcy and collapse of Afghanistan that followed Washington’s withdrawal from the country was a direct result of the latter’s financial, diplomatic and security neglect.
Arguably, had the U.S remained firmly engaged in Kabul after the Soviet Union’s withdrawal from the country, it would have not only contained the ambitions of Pakistan’s policymakers but would also have greatly checked the growth of Islamist extremism which arose in the form of the Taliban’s resurgence and other militant groups in the country. Inevitably – for better or worse – in the virtual absence of Washington’s presence or diplomatic foothold from the region, the strategic thinking in Islamabad came down to channeling and steering these networks to suit its own narrow security interests.
Similarly, the U.S. has willingly overlooked other regional or local military threats that it assumes irrelevant in its security calculus. For instance, President Pervez Musharraf’s ability to keep up the juggling act between handing over a number of Al-Qaida militants to the U.S. and comfortably resisting action against various other Islamist groups based in the country was in a way encouraged by Washington. All of these smaller level threats, often ignored by the U.S have come back to haunt its interests in one form or the other.
Some analysts even argue that Pakistan’s much-debated ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban policy, to some extent, is the direct result of the country’s fears towards another premature and abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan Washington might attempt – or region – that might create another power vacuum similar to the one created in the wake of the post Soviet Union exit. Capturing this view, the former U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, said: “Their maintaining contact with these groups, in my view, is a strategic hedge. They’re not sure who’s going to win in Afghanistan. They’re not sure what’s going to happen along that border area. So to a certain extent, they play both sides.”
While policymakers in Islamabad believe that Washington has hardly allowed bilateral cooperation to expand beyond security, there have been eras when non-security cooperation was very strong. For instance, in 2009, the US Congress approved a major non-military aid package for Pakistan, commonly known as ‘Kerry Lugar Bill (KLB).’ However, the military in Pakistan which controls the country’s security and defense policy is known to have forced the government into rejecting the bill on grounds that it affected Pakistan’s national security. One of the bill’s stipulations asked for the country’s civilian leadership’s effective control over the Pakistani military’s working. However, many in Islamabad, particularly the military, believe that conditions attached to KLB were merely a reflection of the past alliances which were forced on Pakistan. Mainly due to this approach, the policymakers in Islamabad have never felt fully confident in this union which they have always deemed at their own expense. In order to compensate and fulfill its own larger economic and security needs, Pakistan, therefore, has looked for other sources and support, be it conventional or non-conventional.
Pakistan, on its part, needs to demonstrate that it’s ready and willing to take on all terrorist groups that U.S has always asked for which Islamabad claims to have done in its recent counterterrorism efforts, called the National Action Plan (NAP). For the U.S, the preceding decades prove a bitter lesson: the rejection of strategic partnerships should not be exercised without due considerations, for such actions have invariably resulted in eventual loss or erosion of valuable gains, military or otherwise.
To build bilateral trust between the two sides, the U.S. needs to expand its partnership with Pakistan beyond the security prism which the latter has always asked for. The U.S’s current approach of considering Pakistan only viable for security purposes doesn’t truly serve US interests. However, offering Pakistan better trade and economic partnerships, understanding its security concerns in relation to its neighbors and taking steps to strengthen the country’s democracy can go a long way towards diminishing the overwhelming trust deficit and establishing a positive relationship.