Chicago and the aftermath

Courtesy:-  Zafar Hilaly

There’s scarcely a dull moment in US-Pakistan relations. The two countries are frequently at odds, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As Aristotle said: “To get angry at the right things and with the right people, and in the right way and at the right time and for the right length of time is something to be commended.” Loosely understood, this means a certain degree of constructive tension is useful in interstate relations as it is in personal relations. If nothing else, it prevents either party taking the other for granted.

But even the right sort of anger that Aristotle had in mind can degenerate into something mean and vicious if the parties involved act out of spite or are uncaring of the hurt and humiliation they cause the other, and that, sadly, is what’s happening between Islamabad and Washington. A new and complicating factor was Obama’s decision to enter the Pakistan-US dangal and snub Zardari by denying him a proper face-to-face meeting while extending the courtesy to Karzai at the Chicago summit. The callow Obama should have known that insulting a president amounts to insulting his nation. (To claim that Nato and not Obama was the host in Chicago is splitting hairs.)

Had Zardari taken offence and stomped off home – like the Turkish prime minister did in Davos when insulted by the Israeli president – he would have received a hero’s welcome on arrival. Alas, Zardari, being Zardari, would not dream of taking such a bold step, which is, perhaps, why Obama felt he could insult him in the first place. Clearly, the Americans have the measure of our president.

Nevertheless, Obama’s offensive behavior did not go unrequited, retaliation was swift. It’s no coincidence that Dr Shakil Afridi’s life sentence was announced shortly thereafter. And if things go on in the same tit-for-tat style adopted by the American Senate, which cut one million dollars from the aid package for every year of Afridi’s 33 year sentence, a relationship already in tatters may finally collapse. So what? Well, that’s what many are also asking as Americans and Pakistanis seem in the mood to bid the other good riddance.

The bin Laden raid; the incessant drone attacks; Obama’s bypassing Pakistan on his visits to India and Afghanistan; abandoning his election promise to help resolve the Kashmir dispute; inveigling India into Afghanistan despite Pakistani misgivings; declaring India as a “strategic” ally while depicting Pakistan as a state given up to terror and extremism, etc., were all moves greatly resented in Pakistan. However, the proverbial last straw was when Obama refused a timely apology for Salala. For domestic political reasons that may have been politic for Obama but to Pakistanis it bordered on obscenity. It’s a pity that the highly-cerebral Obama does not link the intelligence he undoubtedly possesses with common sense, a modicum of sensibility for the feelings of “an indispensible partner” and a practical approach to solve problems. Anyway it’s too late now.

For Pakistan the Chicago moot was a watershed moment. Linking the reopening of Isaf supply routes to bilateral interactions between Islamabad and Washington and, more importantly, sticking to it, despite well-orchestrated US pressure and crude congressional threats, was not merely a sound but anuncharacteristically brave move on the part of this weak government. It is clearly in Pakistan’s interests to use the supply routes as tactical leverage over a range of other issues pertaining to the strategic picture in Afghanistan.

However, where we went wrong was to attend the Chicago summit without any clear resolution of either the supply route issue or the Salala incident and some sort of an understanding on the drones. This showed a fundamental discord between Pakistan’s tactical interests and the prescriptive means being employed to attain them.

Hence, those policy strategists who suggested we accept the invitation to Chicago should be called out because Zardari’s presence at Chicago permitted Obama to snub Pakistan publicly and to paint Pakistan as an opportunistic ransom-seeking player in the Afghan situation. It lost us not only the tactical initiative but also the high moral ground.

To reclaim the lost ground in the tactical realm we must refuse to back down on the supply routes issue until Pakistan’s core demands are met. Or else Husain Haqqani’s depiction of the Pakistani establishment being mere carpet-sellers who initially demand an exorbitant price but eventually settle for a pittance will be proved right. Provided we stand firm the logic of the situation should dawn on the Americans soon enough because there is no logistically efficient way for the US to withdraw $40 billion worth of equipment from the Afghan theatre without the use of the Pakistani supply routes. The northern route is far more costly than what we are demanding as levy and there may be other complications that the US would need to consider.

Simultaneously, we must minimise all cooperative interactions with the US until a clearer resolution can be attained regarding Pakistan’s concerns vis-a-vis the Coalition Support Fund (CSF). Withholding moneys owed and cleared for payment is dishonorable. The last time the Americans acted in that manner and refused to deliver something for which they had been paid, or return the money, involved the acquisition of the older-model F16s in the 1980s. Even President Clinton, who had an explanation for just about every predicament in which he was discovered, admitted to Benazir Bhutto (1995) that on the matter of the F16s he was not only stumped for an explanation but overwhelmed by embarrassment.

The two measures outlined above will enable us to send a clear message that Pakistan’s cooperation can only be achieved on the basis of reciprocity. And, furthermore, it will reinforce that only with Pakistan’s cooperation can the level of violence in Afghanistan be brought down to an acceptable level.

Washington’s interactions with Islamabad are victim to a fundamental tactical and strategic dilemma. On the one hand, Washington needs Islamabad’s tactical assistance in attaining a face-saving exit from Afghanistan. On the other hand, Washington requires India to serve as a strategic buffer against an emerging China. In other words, Washington is attempting to balance tactical requirements vis-a-vis Afghanistan against the strategic compulsions vis-a-vis China.

This fundamental dichotomy between the tactical and the strategic realms will continue to haunt the Pakistan-US bilateral relationship and that’s really why the relationship is going nowhere. Our differing strategic imperatives rule out a meaningful long-term bilateral relationship. We must come to terms with this fact and carefully reassess the entire gamut of our relations with America and our different interests concerning Afghanistan. We simply cannot allow ourselves to be cajoled or coerced by Washington into doing its bidding.

To reiterate, faced with the fact that US long-term interests lie squarely in aligning itself with India both to prop up the latter against China as well as a market for medium- to hi- tech American goods and services, we must calibrate our tactical policy approaches in such a way that some kind of a harmonious balance can be attained between our strategic interests and the tactical policies being employed to attain those interests. That’s the prescription an unusually bright scholar of Pakistan-US relations, Bilal Munshi, shared with me, and he’s right.


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