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US-Pakistan conundrum


America has recently changed its stance towards Pakistan. This must rank as a dramatic shift in foreign policy, specifically towards the subcontinent. The US has realised that Pakistan has frittered away the goodwill as well as the “dollar diplomacy” that was practised as part of its “war against terror”. “We have much more to do with India today than we have to do with Pakistan,” was the assessment of Defence Secretary Ash Carter during the Obama years. “There is important business with respect to Pakistan, but we have much more, a whole global agenda with India, an agenda that covers all kinds of issues.”

Washington’s increasing ‘tilt towards India’, replacing the mutual hostility that marked the years between 1947 and 1991 was long in coming. The US-Pak relationship ~ with neither country changing its core policies nor giving up the hope that the other will change ~ had endured under Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson. The question that could not be ignored was: What did America get by aiding Pakistan? At least, five American Presidents ~ Jimmy Carter, George Bush (senior), Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama ~ have often doubted the trustworthiness of Pakistan’s leaders.

The Trump administration seems intent on adopting a much harder line against Pakistan and is no longer willing to give a patient hearing to its problems. The appointment of Lisa Curtis as the senior director for South and Central Asia at the National Security Council is suggestive of a more punitive approach towards Pakistan than was evident during the Obama regime. A reduction of economic assistance and downgrading of diplomatic contacts cannot be ruled out. As President, Mr Obama may not have visited Islamabad during his eight years in office; nonetheless, he had increased both military and economic aid to Pakistan than any previous administration, hoping that Islamabad would take action against terrorists. Importantly, Curtis has recommended that any future aid to Pakistan must be calibrated against the ending of its support to the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network.

US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley has said that India can help America “keep an eye on Pakistan” to ensure that it can be held accountable for harbouring terrorists. “We can’t continue to see them harbouring the terrorists. We have to see something change. India is going to witness that. India is going to help us with that,” she said, while speaking at an event organised by the US India Friendship Council. Pakistan has often ignored the documents as proof of its complicity. India can be expected to observe Pakistan as a watchdog, that it is assured of stricter scrutiny by America.

It would be pertinent to recall Imran Khan’s reaction to President Trump’s indictment of Pakistan. The cricketer-turned-politician argued that Pakistan had suffered “over $100 billion in losses” by helping the US in its ‘war on terror’.  Implicit was his oblique criticism of successive Pakistani governments for entrapping his country “in a dismal cycle of immiseration and mass deaths” by supporting the war on terror in return for billions of dollars of financial aid. If America has used Pakistan, the latter has allowed itself to be thus used. The major fault on the part of the US is that while it projected Kashmir as a global danger and nuclear flashpoint, and even despatched a mission under the US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, to avert a nuclear exchange, it was impervious to the fact that the source of that danger ~ whether in Kashmir, Iraq, Iran or North Korea ~ was its reckless oversight of Pakistan’s nuclear proliferation. Washington, at one point, condoned or even assisted the nuclear-weapons capability of Pakistan, and even negotiated for its sale to rogue states and non-state actors, in exchange for short-term gains.

The changing chemistry of relationship between Pakistan and the US is perceptible. However, Ashley Tellis in his 91-page essay ‘Are India-Pakistan Peace Talks Worth a Damn?’ rightly observes that Washington’s dependence on Pakistan incapacitates it from applying real pressure. “The chokehold that Pakistan enjoys on the United States, thanks entirely to geography, has thus neutralised Washington’s superior coercive capacity.” This also explains why during the Bush and Obama years, “as long as Rawalpindi assisted Washington in ferreting out important Al Qaida operatives in Pakistan, the United States… was content to accept the vague Pakistani promises of suppressing anti-Indian terrorist groups.”

It would be interesting to see how the Pakistani establishment acts on the ground.  For years it has harboured the hope that it could act against the Afghan Taliban to bargain for US pressure on India to reach a settlement with Pakistan over Kashmir. But both the Bush and Obama administrations refused to oblige, and now the Trump administration has also toughened its stand. Pakistan’s sentimental attachment to the Afghan Taliban has been tempered with the perception of the group as resistance warriors against foreign occupation, akin to the Mujahideen war against Soviet occupation in the 1980s. There is also the fear that Afghanistan, in the event of being ruled by the non-Pashtun nationalities, would become an Indian client state, and lead to India’s strategic encirclement of Pakistan.

This has been discussed at length by Husain Haqqani in his book, Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding. Haqqani documentsl the three occasions when the United States had enlisted Pakistan as an ally ~ during the Cold War (1954-72), during the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan (1979-89), and the war against terrorism (2001 onwards). The US motive for seeking an alliance with Pakistan has been different from the latter’s reasons for accepting it. “For example, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the United States saw an opportunity to avenge the Vietnam War and bleed the Soviet Red army with the help of Mujahideen, militant Islamist radicals trained by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and funded by United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Pakistan, however, looked upon the military action in Afghanistan as a jihad to be used as the launching-pad for asymmetric warfare that would increase its clout against India.”

Haqqani writes : “Pakistanis have seldom pondered why, after six decades of alliance with the United States the country has not been able to build the kind of economy that other US allies such as South Korea and Taiwan have managed to create for themselves.” While India’s relationship with the US has been essentially strategic and synergic conforming to the imperatives of the US in South Asia, or simply as a bulwark against both China and Islamist extremism, Pakistan’s primary concern has been the competition with India for regional influence which has never been a strategic concern for the United States. As an irreversible game of dice, though China has long surpassed and supplanted the US in importance in Pakistan, sheltering it from the fire and brimstone, Pakistan is hypothecated to China almost as a lackey, as once was  to the US.

This is in view of the fact that China has acquired everything from power companies and contracts to the collection of garbage to stakes in the Karachi stock exchange, besides looping it around the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Now that Pakistan’s six-decade-old relationship with the US is coming under severe strain, it is time for Islamabad to reflect if its pathologically adversarial stand against India, and its single-minded policy of bleeding India with thousand cuts have really been helpful. In a word, Pakistan needs to recalibrate and reinvent itself.

(The writer is a Kolkata-based commentator on politics, development and cultural issues)