Pakistan’s growing proximity with China and the frustrations of the US forces in Afghanistan, will ensure that Sharif, the quintessential politician, will need more than words to thaw relations with the restless and wary US. Pakistan is nervous and faltering at every step, but its establishment (the politicos, military and the clergy) has boxed itself into a corner with regressive belligerence and ‘selectiveness’.
Since 2001, the US has supplied Pakistan with nearly $20 billion worth of invaluable military assistance and wares (still the second biggest arms supplier, after China). In 2016 itself, Pakistan is still expected to have substantial trade and commerce with the US (imports worth $3.5 billion and export worth $2 billion). Pakistan is among the foremost recipients of US financial aid, directly and indirectly via multilateral organisations. The US is unacknowledgedly still the primary support for Pakistan’s existential ‘war on terror’ within its borders. The much despised US drones have ‘neutralised’ Pakistan’s most wanted terrorist, Mullah Fazlullah. Pakistan was earlier conferred strategic status as a ‘Major Non-NATO Ally’ (MNNA), in recognition of the assets committed within Pakistan and the access that it offers to the landlocked conflict zone of Afghanistan. Put simply, while the interdependence is vital for both countries, for Pakistan it is existential. The sustenance stakes for Pakistan are not just military but also economic, geo-political, social and political.
In recent times, the mutual distrust between Islamabad and Washington DC has intensified with incidents like the Raymond Davis fiasco, Salala incident (when the US-led NATO forces engaged with Pakistani military along the Af-Pak border) and the global embarrassment of US forces ‘taking out’ Osama bin Laden from the garrison town of Abbottabad. Compounding the sense of insult within Pakistan is the strategic convergence between the two ‘natural allies’, India and the US, the continuation of the drone attacks and the stalling of the F-16 fighter planes. Not surprisingly, the Gallup poll within the US posited the perception for Pakistan at a 21% ‘favourable’, to a 70% ‘unfavourable’ (vis-à-vis, 75% ‘favourable’ to an 18% ‘unfavourable’ for India). Within Pakistan itself, the perceptions towards the US are even worse: a deep sense of betrayal and a need-based relationship persists (especially in the context of the Indo-Pak equation, and therefore the ‘all-weather-friendship’ vis-à-vis the American nemesis, China). The wave of global Pan-Islamic resurgence and assertion has fundamentally eroded perceptions about the US within the Pakistani mainstream.
The dichotomous dynamics of Pak-US relationship, struggling to bridge the conflict emanating from the ‘genuine need’ for each other, along with the equally glaring reality, of a blatantly negative perception about each other, is increasing. Amidst this challenge for rapprochement, the news of Donald Trump taking over the White House in Washington DC has set off more alarm bells in Pakistan than in most other capitals. Irrespective of the political talk in the Pakistani hinterland, the US is crucial and irreplaceable for Pakistan’s existence and sustenance as a modicum of a modern state.
However, Donald Trump’s over-simplistic appreciation of foreign affairs has been particularly severe towards Pakistan as he had famously remarked, “They are not friends of ours”. His terming of Pakistan as “probably the most dangerous” country in the world and his counter-contextual view of India’s role, “You have to get India involved…They have their own nukes and have a very powerful army. They seem to be the real check…I think we have to deal very closely with India to deal with it (Pakistan)” is worrisome for the Pakistanis. His reductionist impression further transgresses the famed Pakistani duplicity with a no-holds-barred, “We’ve given them (Pakistan) money and they’ve double dealt us”, leaving very little doubt of his views of the future evolution of the crucial triad of India-Pakistan-US framework. Even the recent Presidential campaign memories of the very public, Democrat platform-sharing by the parents of Captain Humayan Khan (the martyred US soldier of Pakistani descent), will not be erased from Trump’s famed memory soon.
As it is, Nawaz Sharif has been struggling with his own battles for survival with the Pakistani military perennially breathing down his neck, political opponents routinely threatening clamp-downs, corruption charges of ‘Panamagate’ flying in his face ~ and now, he has the additional angularity of having to deal with Donald Trump. Post
the initial shock of the Trump victory, the de riguer
diplomatic niceties of courtesy calls by global leaders to the President-elect of the US, has exemplified the situational Pakistani nervousness with an embarrassing gaffe and the first public indictment by the transition team of Donald Trump.
Breaking diplomatic protocol and showing amateurish glee, the Pakistanis selectively released the supposed transcript of the conversation between the two leaders, to publicly share Trump’s ostensible statement to Nawaz Sharif, “You have a very good reputation. You are a terrific guy. You are doing amazing work which is visible in every way. I am looking forward to see you soon. As I am talking to you, Prime Minister, I feel I am talking to a person I have known for long. Your country is amazing with tremendous opportunities. Pakistanis are one of the most intelligent people. I am willing and ready to play any role that you want me to play, to address and find solutions to the outstanding problems…”, clearly offering a counter-narrative to the established Trump impression on Pakistan, and more importantly, positioning his supposed comments to imply the historical dream of the Pakistani establishment ~ to intervene and internationalise the Indo-Pak hotspots.
The rebuttal from the Trump transition team was swift, direct and unequivocal when they expressed their displeasure at the “flowery language” put out by Islamabad. Team Trump clearly noted the convenient and expansive approach of the Pakistanis to suggest, “more than what he (Trump) meant”. The mandarins in Islamabad were soon left red-faced at the call of their bluff, diplomatic indiscretion and the inelegant desperation shown by Pakistan. While there are good reasons for Nawaz Sharif to fake confidence in these troubled times, he has unknowingly reconfirmed the perceptions of Pakistani duplicity and creative deciphering of situations.
It is true that Donald Trump will take time to evolve and concretise his thoughts about global dynamics. However, Pakistan’s growing proximity with China and the frustrations of the US forces in Afghanistan, will ensure that Sharif, the quintessential politician, will need more than words to thaw relations with the restless and wary US. Pakistan is nervous and faltering at every step, but its establishment (the politicos, military and the clergy) has boxed itself into a corner with regressive belligerence and ‘selectiveness’.
It will require Pakistan to make peace with its wounded soul and reconcile to the ill-effects of its chosen path, as no amount of phone calls can make up for institutionalised and internalised falsehoods that are perpetrated in Pakistan to keep the trilogy of its institutions ~ politicos, military and the clergy ~ going.
(The writer is Lt Gen PVSM, AVSM (retd), former Lt Governor of
Andaman & Nicobar Islands & Puducherry)