During my last visit to the US, I found from a ‘trash yard sale’ a book entitled “America’s Stake in Asia” written in 1968 by Drew Middleton, a renowned foreign correspondent, first for Associated Press, and later for The New York Times who covered the World War II from D-Day to V-Day and several subsequent developments in Africa and Asia before returning to New York in 1965 to become The New York Times’ Chief Correspondent at the United Nations.
This old book on “America’s Stake in Asia” may have ended up in trash, but Pakistan as a fiercely independent country has rarely disappeared for any length of time from America’s strategic radar screen. No, Pakistan is not a lost friend. For more than sixty-five years now, it has loomed large in one form or another, either as a staunch ally, or a troublesome friend, or even a threat. Now, for the first time, it is all of these things. The war on terror may have provided the rationale for the ongoing unpalatable US ‘engagement’ with Pakistan, but this war neither limits the relationship’s scope nor exhausts the challenges it faces.
It has indeed been a curious, if not enigmatic, relationship. It never had any conflict of interest, yet it also never developed a genuine mutuality of interests beyond self-serving expediencies with each side always aiming at different goals and objectives to be derived from their relationship which has been without a larger conceptual framework and a shared vision beyond each side’s narrowly-based and vaguely-defined issue-specific priorities. For Pakistan, the issues of security and survival in a turbulent and hostile regional environment were the overriding policy factors in its relations with Washington. The US policy goals in Pakistan, on the other hand, have traditionally been rooted in its own regional and global interests.
Unfortunately, besides persistent trust deficit, in recent years, the two countries have had no control over the growing list of irritants some of which could have easily been avoided if both sides were guided by the concept of mutuality in their relationship. But let us be honest. The problem is not the relationship. The problem is its poor and shortsighted management on both sides. For Washington, it has remained an issue-specific, transactional relationship. They give us errands and we get paid.
Since our independence, Washington has been pumping money like hell into our coffers as compensation, not reward, for the assorted “errands” we have been running on its behalf, first in the Cold War, then in the Afghan-Soviet War, and lately as its non-NATO ally in the War on Terror. Since 2001 alone, it gave us more than $15 billion in addition to the annual aid package of $ 1.5 billion under the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2009 for five years with an appropriate “performance-based” military assistance. It has indeed given a lot of money to our self-serving rulers, but its dividends never reached the people.
Other than some palatial farmhouses in Chak Shahzad and elsewhere, there is not a single university or hospital built with US assistance anywhere in Pakistan. One has yet to see any visible people-specific projects on the ground in any part of this country that could be attributed to American assistance. Ironically, each “engagement” period in this relationship coincided with a military or military-controlled government in Pakistan and a Republican administration in Washington. Most of the “estrangement” phases of the US-Pakistan relationship saw a Democrat administration in Washington and a politically vulnerable elected government in Pakistan.
This tradition generated its own anti-Americanism in Pakistan with a perception that the US did not want democracy to take root in this country. Somehow, our people always found the US standing on the wrong side in the arena of our domestic power struggle. Our dictators, civilian or non-civilian, have always been Washington’s blue-eyed boys. Under General Musharraf, Pakistan’s post-9/11 alliance with the US was indeed the beginning of a painful chapter in Pakistan’s history. In the blinking of an eye, we became a battleground of the US-led war on terror and have constantly been paying a heavy price in terms of human and material losses.
From being a major power in South Asia always equated with India, Pakistan today is bracketed with Afghanistan in terms of its outlook, role and relevance. We are seen both as the problem and the key to its solution. No wonder, we are also being treated both as a target and a partner while fighting a common enemy. It is time to correct this approach. The US-Pakistan relationship must not be all about any particular incident or an individual. It is an important equation and must be kept immune to isolated irritants. The objective on both sides must be not to weaken this relationship but to strengthen it by infusing in it greater political, economic and strategic content.
In his November 2007 address at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics, then Senator and now Vice-President Joe Biden had publicly admitted that “beyond the current crisis lurks a far deeper problem in this relationship which is largely transactional and this transaction isn’t working for either party.” From America’s perspective,” according to him, “Pakistan despite receiving billions of dollars never delivered on combating the Taliban and Al Qaeda. From Pakistan’s perspective,” he acknowledged, “America is an unreliable ally which for its own interests has only bolstered its corrupt rulers.”
Like Drew Middleton, Joe Biden also couldn’t escape painful soul-searching to be able to sum up the hard reality of US-Pakistan relationship as Washington’s yet another unlearnt lesson: “History may describe today’s Pakistan as a repeat of 1979 Iran or 2001 Afghanistan. Or history may write a very different story: that of Pakistan as a stable, democratic, secular Muslim state. Which future unfolds will be strongly influenced — if not determined — by the actions of the United States.” He may be right but our tryst with destiny will be determined only by our own actions. We must restore our global image as a moderate, stable, self-respecting and responsible state, capable of living at peace with itself and with its neighbours.
What is important for us at this critical juncture is not what we are required to do for others’ interests; it is what we ought to do to serve our own national interests. We need to regain our lost sovereign independence, our freedom of action and our national dignity and honour.
We must free ourselves of the forces of extremism, obscurantism, violence, militancy and intolerance. Our biggest challenge is to convert our pivotal location into an asset rather than a liability.