A troubled partnership —Rasul Bakhsh Rais

These are defining times for Pakistan and powerful international players like the US, and call for cool reflection on how best to cooperate meaningfully toward mutual advantage rather than drift and diverge to incapacitate ourselves

Pakistan and the United States have entered into a strategic partnership for the third time, and it obviously lacks the charm and excitement of the first one. But the current partnership is more significant in terms of what is at stake domestically and for the national security of Pakistan and the US than perhaps was the case when they aligned to ‘defeat’ communism and, later, ‘liberate’ Afghanistan.

There is a qualitative difference between the Cold War military-oriented relationship, which was largely shaped by global systemic and ideological considerations, and the ongoing one, which is apparently aimed at defending regional states and the global order against increasingly threatening non-state actors.

What has quite often troubled the multilateral partnership between Pakistan, the US and other members of the international coalition is the lack of a converging understanding of a common enemy. It seems that there is no single view of who the enemy really is; what kind of threat it poses; and what are the best means to defeat it. There is a greater problem in the domestic situation of Pakistan where perceptions of war on terror and cooperation with the US and other partners have widely differed over the years.

How the elected governments in Islamabad and Peshawar can bridge this gap is a big question. They are going through a learning process and their socialisation with the realities of world politics and a comprehension of the security situation on the border may take some time. It is difficult to say whether they will stick to the template they inherited from Pervez Musharraf or redefine Pakistan’s strategic partnership with US. My hunch is that they cannot deviate too much from the dotted line, and will gradually tone down their political rhetoric and embrace realism.

The salient view in Pakistan that the war on terror is not our war, but that we are in it because the Americans want us to be in it, has its roots in our traditional Afghan policy. Pakistan didn’t view the Taliban as a threat to either itself or to regional security before 9/11, and supported them as regional partners and allies. And that is the view that a good section of Pakistani society still holds.

On the other hand, while the US was benignly indifferent to the civil war in Afghanistan and didn’t regard the Taliban as a major problem, it wanted them only to cooperate in apprehending Al Qaeda leaders.

The way the US and the world community reacted to 9/11 forced Pakistan to change its policy toward the Taliban and Afghanistan. Frankly, it was a forced conversion. In the changed circumstances, Pakistan pursued a prudent course, and very intelligently made virtue out of necessity.

Our media and the vernacular press have debated the famous U-turn in moralistic tones, which is unfair because politics has ‘a morality of its own’, as Machiavelli said, and states in the modern world system have to adopt and adjust to new circumstances.

This is exactly what Pakistan did. So the change in the Afghan policy was mere familiar repositioning in a new balance of power and in a vastly changed environment. The real catalyst of geopolitical transformation around Pakistan was the view in the US that radical Islam and militant movements posed the gravest threat.

This outlook produced an extended definition of national security and strengthened the political and social base of the neo-cons, who greatly influenced the two wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Pakistan could remain unaffected by a massive international intervention next door and had to choose between siding with the US and aligning against it. Neutrality in such situations is not a convenient or even safe choice for weak and dysfunctional states.

Quite a few Pakistanis however don’t look at the world system and the pressures of power politics from a pragmatic point of view. When it comes to serious questions about our relationship with the modern western world, most notably with the US, we intuitively revert to an irrational view of history involving the medieval conflict between Islam and Christianity. Modern nation states are new animals, the kind we never experienced before the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.

When it comes to hard and difficult issues of world politics, we tend to mask incoherent idealism with raw and rough nationalism that also has a thick spattering of pan-Islamism. My obvious reference is to some Pakistanis and Muslims from other countries who think they have a right to tell the Afghans what is best for them, and if the Afghans don’t listen, to intervene to support those in Afghanistan who share their religious and political views.

However there can and must be a debate on what really is the best course of action for us, which foreign policy is better than others and how we can cooperate with the US and others without compromising our fundamental values and national interests.

We cannot be insensible to the fact that the war on terror is one of the most complex military engagements, domestically divisive and hard to win through coercive means alone. It is natural then the states together in it will experience stress and strains, and this happens to be the case between Pakistan and the United States.

Owing to many failures in Afghanistan — particularly the inability to build a viable security infrastructure and link the incipient state with different social groups, particularly the Pashtun — the war on terror has faltered. This has left a big impact on Pakistan’s relations with the US as well as the Kabul regime, both of which blame the failure on the infiltration from Pakistan’s tribal border. That may be true, but it is not the only factor that makes the resurgent Taliban so threatening.

Afghanistan and Pakistan face a grave security situation with the rise in the Taliban insurgency. There is reason to be concerned in the western capitals as well. What we face is an unconventional security threat in an environment charged with religious and cultural split.

We have mostly young militants armed with a self-righteous, dogmatic and prescriptive mythology of faith. That is not all; they are well armed and funded, willing to die for their cause. They have transnational linkages with like-minded groups, and, more dangerously, have growing domestic social support.

These are defining times for Pakistan and powerful international players like the US and call for cool reflection on how best to cooperate meaningfully toward mutual advantage rather than drift and diverge to incapacitate ourselves.

Dr Rasul Baksh Rais is author of Recovering the Frontier State: War, Ethnicity and State in Afghanistan (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books 2008) and a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. He can be reached at rasul@lums.edu.pk

Daily Times, 29/7/2008

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