An Enigmatic Relationship The Past, Present and Future of Pak-US relations

The Pakistan-US relationship is no doubt an old relationship that has survived many ups and downs. We have been friends and allies for nearly 65 years now. Yes, it has been a curious relationship. It never had any conflict of interest and yet remained without any mutuality of interest either. The only mutuality in this hinge has been one of expediency with each side always aiming at different goals and objectives to be derived from this relationship

When we became independent in 1947, we were a house divided not against itself but by more than 1000 miles of hostile India’s territory. The world itself was divided in two rival, mutually hostile blocs presenting our foreign policy with a difficult choice; either align with the so-called free world represented at that time by the West or accept subservience to the authoritarian and monolithic Communist system.

In that intensely bi-polar world, we made a deliberate choice of opting for the global pole that we thought stood for freedom and democracy. In 1954, we entered into a ‘mutual defence agreement’ with the US and by 1955 we were part of two major Western alliances, SEATO and CENTO in the hope that they will provide strength to us in our quest for survival.

For us, the over-riding consideration in seeking alliances with the West was our need for military and economic support which to some extent we did receive; and for the West, it was their concern about Soviet expansionism and Pakistan’s special geo-political importance and its potential for a determined and decisive role in the final stages of the Cold War.

The US pressurized France to cancel a deal for supply of a reprocessing plant to Pakistan. Limited U.S. aid was then resumed in 1975, but was suspended again in 1979 by the Carter Administration in response to what was alleged as Pakistan’s covert construction of a uranium enrichment facility.

This was a clear expression of our choice for freedom and for security. Our experience, however, did not match our expectations. As a result of these alliances, we did receive nearly $2 billion in US assistance from 1953 to 1961 but when it came to defending ourselves against India in 1965 and then again in 1971, we were left all alone, and in the process lost half the country, the worst that could happen to any independent state in contemporary history.

Through those harsh Cold War years, we did not blink despite the intensity and proximity of the Soviet gaze. We undertook historic errands on behalf of the US which included the use of our air bases by US spy planes in the 1960s and a seminal contribution in the 1970s to the US-China rapprochement. And we continued to play the role of a global fall guy.

In the mid-1970s, we were again disappointed when the US and other Western countries failed to appreciate our apprehensions from India’s unchecked nuclear ambitions. The US pressurized France to cancel a deal for supply of a reprocessing plant to Pakistan. Limited U.S. aid was then resumed in 1975, but was suspended again in 1979 by the Carter Administration in response to what was alleged as Pakistan’s covert construction of a uranium enrichment facility.

All this notwithstanding, Pakistan’s strategic location remained pivotal to the global dynamics of the Cold War era. Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979, Pakistan again became a key ally of the US and also the front-line state in the last and decisive battle of the Cold War.

The policy of containment in its final phase was enacted in our region, and we were a major player in dismantling what the free world once called the ‘evil empire’ of the former Soviet Union. Once the war was over and the Soviets pulled out, the US just walked away, leaving Afghanistan and its people at the mercy of their fate.

The dividends of peace and freedom went to Eastern Europe. We were left in the lurch, with a massive refugee influx and a culture of drugs and guns known as the “Kalashnikov” culture, which has almost torn apart our social and political fabric.
The dividends of peace and freedom went to Eastern Europe. We were left in the lurch, with a massive refugee influx and a culture of drugs and guns known as the “Kalashnikov” culture, which has almost torn apart our social and political fabric.

In the years that followed, the US not only turned a blind eye on our strategic concerns vis-à-vis India but also started bringing us under greater scrutiny and pressure for our legitimate nuclear program. We faced an unfair punitive approach under its congressional laws on nuclear proliferation and human rights.

The 1985 Pressler Amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 which banned economic and military assistance to countries engaged in nuclear weapon programs was used to impose economic sanctions against Pakistan. Since then, however, the Pressler Amendment sanctions did find exemptions and waivers whenever it suited Washington’s own interests.

Shortly after the 9/11, President Bush lifted completely the economic and military sanctions against both India and Pakistan which had been imposed for their nuclear tests.  Since then, Pakistan is again a close and pivotal ‘ally’ of the US providing full cooperation in its war on terror in exchange for tightly-conditioned economic and military assistance to Pakistan.

In 2003, a five-year $3 billion aid package was announced for Pakistan to be disbursed in annual installments of $600 million each commencing from FY 2005, and split evenly between military and economic aid. Besides extending grants to Pakistan totaling $1 billion during the first three years after 9/11, Washington also wrote off $1 bil lion in debt.

Its direct assistance programmes included development assistance, balance-of-payment support, debt rescheduling and forgiveness as well as agricultural, trade, and investment support. The US also supported grant, loan, and debt rescheduling programs for Pakistan by the various major international financial institutions.

In June 2004, he designated Pakistan as a major non-NATO ally of the United States, a move that in all respects was more symbolic than practical.

In 2009, the Kerry-Lugar Bill pledged an annual aid package of $1.5 billion for five years renewable for another five years with additional ‘performance-based’ military assistance which was to be subjected to rigorous oversight and accountability.

The problem with the Kerry-Lugar Bill formally known as the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2009 was the intrusive conditionalities subjecting security-related assistance to pre-disbursement certifications by the US Secretary of State. Ironically most of the pledged aid money has yet to be disbursed. In any case, the amount involved in this aid package was not really big money. We could do without it. A little more efficient management of our government could easily save us twice this amount in reduced government spending and giving up of the Marco Polo culture by our leaders.

The Pakistan-US relationship is no doubt an old relationship that has survived many ups and downs. We have been friends and allies for nearly 65 years now. Yes, it has been a curious relationship. It never had any conflict of interest and yet remained without any mutuality of interest either. The only mutuality in this hinge has been one of expediency with each side always aiming at different goals and objectives to be derived from this relationship.

For Pakistan, the issues of security and survival in a turbulent and hostile regional environment and its problems with India were the overriding policy factors in its relations with Washington.  The US policy goals in Pakistan, on the other hand, have traditionally encompassed a wide range of its regional and global interests, especially the issues of India-Pakistan hostility, nuclear and missile proliferation, democracy, human rights and now terrorism.

The problem with the Kerry-Lugar Bill formally known as the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2009 was the intrusive conditionalities subjecting security-related assistance to pre-disbursement certifications by the US Secretary of State. Ironically most of the pledged aid money has yet to be disbursed.
In the process, this relationship has seen alternating phases of engagement and estrangement depending on the convergence and divergence of each side’s respective goals and policies. For much of its history, this enigmatic relationship has lacked continuity, a larger conceptual framework, and a shared vision beyond the “narrowly based and vaguely defined” issue-specific priorities.

Unpredictability has been another consistent feature of this relationship which has gone through regular interruptions in its intensity and integrity.  The US would lose interest in remaining engaged in any cooperation once it achieved its objectives. Pakistan was either consigned to benign neglect or hit with a succession of punitive sanctions that left in their trail resentment and a sense of betrayal.

The events of 9/11 represented a critical threshold in Pakistan’s foreign policy. By allying himself with America’s war on terror without going through any institutional process, General Musharraf managed to secure ‘de facto international acceptance for his 1999 coup,”  This alliance was the beginning of another painful chapter in Pakistan’s history.

In the blinking of an eye, we became a battleground of the US war on terror, and have been paying a heavy price in terms of human and material losses. We are today the only country in the world waging a full-scale war on its own soil and rightly or wrongly against its own people.

In addition to invisible emotional fall out, this war has cost Pakistan staggering military burden, unquantifiable collateral damage and irreparable economic loss in the form of massive internal displacement, trade and production slowdown, and investor hesitation.  And yet, one is bewildered at Pakistan’s demonization by its friends and allies.

It is time to correct this approach. It is important that Pakistan, as a partner and an ally, is treated with dignity and sovereign equality. But Washington seems to have its own priorities as part of its China-driven larger Asian agenda and its ongoing post-9/11 Central Asia-focused ‘great game’ in pursuit of its worldwide political and economic power.

Our Afghanistan-related problems are aggravated by the complex regional configuration with a growing Indo-US nexus, India’s strategic ascendancy in the region and its unprecedented influence in Afghanistan with serious nuisance potential against Pakistan’s security interests.

Last few years have been a fateful period for us. Our relevance today on the US radar screen is only as a crucial partner in its war on terror and as the key player in bringing durable peace to Afghanistan. Beyond this role and relevance, we are seen in Washington and in other Western capitals only as a regional ‘vagabond’ headed by willful and corrupt rulers, always with a begging bowl in their hand and looking for support to remain in power.

From being a major power in South Asia always equated with India, Pakistan today is bracketed with Afghanistan in terms of its outlook, role, needs and problems. We are seen both as the problem and as the key to its solution. No wonder, we are also being treated both as a target and a partner while fighting a common enemy.

By allying himself with America’s war on terror without going through any institutional process, General Musharraf managed to secure ‘de facto international acceptance for his 1999 coup’
US position on India-Pakistan issues

Any objective assessment of this region’s volatile environment will reveal that South Asia’s issues of peace and security, in their essence, emanate from India-Pakistan hostility and conflict. And at the core of all their problems is the Kashmir issue which has perennially kept them in a confrontational mode.

The US position on Kashmir has always been ambivalent and evasive of any role against India’s wishes. It did recognize the dispute but said it should be settled in accordance with the wishes of the Kashmiri people, without any reference to the UN resolutions on Kashmiri people’s inalienable right of self-determination.

Today, India-Pakistan peace is critical to the prospect of a stable and peaceful Afghanistan where the implications of US failure are grave.  President Obama in early days of his presidency understood this linkage.  He knew that no strategy or roadmap for durable peace in the region including Afghanistan would be comprehensive without focusing on the underlying causes of conflict and instability.

For any regional approach to succeed in Afghanistan, Obama was convinced the India-Pakistan equation will have to be kept straight.  But in the actual execution of his Af-Pak policy, Obama was soon detracted from his stated goals.

Whatever the end-game, durable peace in Afghanistan will remain elusive as long as Pakistan’s legitimate security concerns in the region remain unaddressed. Instead of continuing with lamentable ‘blame game’ using Pakistan as an easy ‘scapegoat’ for their own failures in this war, the US and its allies must accept the reality that for Pakistan, Afghanistan is an area of fundamental strategic importance.

Howsoever enigmatic, US-Pakistan relationship is an important equation. It is time for both sides now to set a better bilateral perspective for this relationship on the basis of universally established norms of inter-state relations. Unfortunately, besides persistent trust deficit, 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.

Obviously, Washington has its own priorities as part of its larger Asian agenda. For us, given our geopolitical location, the foremost challenge to our foreign policy lay in our ability to withstand America’s pressures without compromising on our national interests. We also need to set our priorities in terms of our national interests.

It seems our diplomacy in Washington has been the victim of cross purposes as evidenced in the recent Memogate scandal. US Ambassador Munter has been doing a great job for his country. Pakistan’s diplomacy in Washington, in recent years, did not represent the state: it was catering to the whims of an individual. If experience is any lesson, our ambassador in Washington must have no ‘conflict of interest.’

Even the current crisis in our relationship with the US is the result of commitments made by our self-serving rulers, not in the state’s interest but in their own interest.  But we are masters in devising systemic perversities as part of our vested power game.

The most classic example of this proclivity is the post-Salala attempt by our crafty rulers to reduce our parliament into a tool of their own self-serving designs. They are shifting responsibility for major foreign policy decisions to the parliament just because they don’t have moral courage to take those decisions and are using the parliament to shield themselves from public as well as American wrath. They are hoodwinking both.

In its deliberate, self-serving abnegation of responsibility, the executive is killing two birds: putting the onus for difficult decisions on the parliament and making it hostage to its own whims and whimsicalities. It is a political stunt. The Americans know that parliaments make laws, not policies. It is the executive that makes policies. No wonder, after the recent hullabaloo, the recommendations of the parliamentary committee on national security have landed in the Defense Committee of the Cabinet (DCC).

But let’s be honest. The problem is not the relationship. The problem is its poor and shortsighted management on both sides.  For Washington, it remains a transactional relationship. On our side, this relationship has been used by our rulers solely as their political and economic crutches, and for their self-serving notorious deals. To them, this relationship is all about their personal interests.

The Kerry-Lugar Bill was a classic example of flawed and shortsighted decision-making on both sides. On our side, it was a matter of poor judgment of the national mood and country’s vital interests, and on the American side, it was yet another example of exploiting Pakistan’s crumbling democracy and vulnerable leadership.

It is time to remake this relationship. Diplomacy from both sides should be aimed not only at averting conflictual situations but also to strengthen their relationship by infusing in it greater political, economic and strategic content. To endure and flourish, the US-Pakistan equation must be based on sovereign equality and mutual respect. It must no longer remain what Vice President Joe Biden once described as a ‘transactional’ relationship, and must go beyond the ‘war on terror.’

Washington’s new focus must be on the people rather than the corrupt ruling elite who have always abused this relationship for their own self-serving purposes. It must reach out to democratic and liberal forces and the business community in our country, and also our younger generation, which may resent US power but not its ideals. And in their success alone lies the very future of Pakistan as a strong and stable democratic country. Ultimately, US-Pakistan relations will stand or fall based on whether they benefit the people of Pakistan or any particular regime or ruler.

Our dilemma was best spelt out by George Washington in his farewell address in 1796. Alluding to the fate of small nations that leave themselves at the mercy of larger powers, he cautioned: “an attachment of a small or weak toward a great and powerful nation dooms the former to be the satellite of the latter”.

In his view, it was â’a folly in one nation to look for disinterested favours from another’ because ‘it must pay with a portion of its independence and its sovereignty for whatever it may accept under that character.’

We indeed are a classic example of this ‘folly’ of seeking ‘disinterested favours’ from others ransoming our sovereign independence and freedom of action in our own interests. We have never been so weak and so vulnerable. Let us not blame America, India or anyone else for being where we are today.  Our rulers have themselves squandered our sovereignty, dignity and national honour.

We need to restore our credibility as an independent state and regain our lost sovereign independence, freedom of action and national dignity.  We must convert our pivotal location into an asset rather than a liability. We must restore our global image as a strong, stable, self-reliant and responsible state, capable of living at peace with itself and with its neighbours.

Our foremost challenge 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 must not make any compromise on principles & national interests.

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