When the moderator in the vice-presidential debate earlier this month asked whether a nuclear Iran or an unstable Pakistan posed a greater threat to the United States, neither Joe Biden nor Sarah Palin cared to take issue with the question. Nor did they point out that one of the two countries happened to be a longstanding friend of America.
Attitudes like this explain why, for all the attention the election campaign is receiving in Pakistan’s media, many people are viewing it with deep cynicism. Indeed more and more Pakistanis believe that it won’t make much of a difference whoever wins because the domineering American approach that they have become accustomed to, and dislike, is unlikely to change. This mood of cynicism has been reinforced by the latest dip in ties between the two countries. Dramatic ups and downs are a familiar feature in a relationship, historically characterized by almost predictable cycles of engagement and estrangement.
The new low comes in the wake of increasing cross-border incursions by US forces into Pakistan’s border zones, where Washington believes a reconstituted Al Qaeda is now ensconced. These attacks have inflamed public opinion and evoked protest across the board. And for all Washington’s public assurances about respecting Pakistani sovereignty, missile strikes have continued. This has only intensified questioning of Pakistan’s support for the US-led war on terror, as evidenced in the recent debate during the special session of parliament.
For the Pakistani public the utterances of the two presidential candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama have neither been reassuring nor substantially different from each other, when it comes to how to deal with Pakistan and Afghanistan. Both seemed to have vied with the other to demonstrate that they will come down harder on so-called terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan, without however outlining a strategy on how they might elicit the consent and cooperation of Islamabad.
This tough talk may simply be campaign rhetoric, but it reflects for many Pakistanis a disturbing continuity with the approach of the Bush Administration, especially in its twilight months. People in Pakistan have also followed with great dismay the debates in which the candidates have shown a remarkable lack of understanding, much less appreciation, of the human and political price that Pakistan has paid for being a frontline state.
The most common Pakistani perception of the US today is that it is a self-centred power that shows little concern for the interests of other nations, and uses and discards its allies according to the demands of the moment. Historical experience testifies to this view. Relations between the United States have been episodic and transactional, driven by shifts in Washington’s geopolitical interests, and never really regarded by the American side as intrinsically important.
For all this, Pakistanis recognize that the US will continue to be Pakistan’s most critical bilateral relationship – other than China – even if they disagree whether or not the renewed focus on their region promised by both Presidential hopefuls, is a good thing or not. This in turn determines what expectations they have of the next president.
A key challenge for the new administration will be how to repair its image and standing in a country that is regarded as so critical to regional and global security. The way the US is perceived can, after all, affect the amount and quality of cooperation it can get from a Pakistani government. For example, the swift humanitarian assistance the US delivered after the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan helped at the time to change public views of America in a positive way. It underlined that it is not impossible to trump cynicism with a generous dose of altruistic medicine.
What Pakistanis would like to see above all is the US radically overhaul its strategy in the region, as the firm consensus is that present policy has failed. Instead of enhancing Pakistan’s security and that of Afghanistan, Washington’s militaristic approach has widened the conflagration. It has pushed the conflict deeper into the Pakistani heartland, destabilizing the country. Current US policy, with its over reliance on the military approach, has multiplied enemies and spread radicalization. If this is continued, it risks submerging the region in a whirlpool of chaos and anarchy and mire Washington in a war without end.
A new strategy is needed that is truly holistic, and one that relies more on soft rather than hard power. The first step is for the United States to redefine its goals. So far Washington’s objectives have been so expansively framed and pursued as to make them unachievable. It has been trying to do several things simultaneously; eliminate terrorists, defeat the Taliban, transform Afghan society and take on tribal chiefs and traditions. This has resulted in a growing fusion between Pashtun nationalism and Muslim radicalism. It has also stoked the impression that the very presence of the US in the region is a threat to the Islamic way of life.
The United States should instead shift emphasis to political accommodation and development to win hearts and minds. Political solutions should replace bombing campaigns and efforts launched to bring the Taliban into a reconciliation process.
It also needs to demonstrate in deeds not words that it cares about the well-being of the Pakistani people beyond the elimination of terrorism and that it is willing to help in ways that Pakistanis want. Pakistan’s stability depends not just on containing extremism and militancy but on strengthening the economy and on addressing its long running adversarial relationship with India.
The US needs to change the way it thinks about aid. All too often aid has been seen by Capitol Hill as a quid pro quo with Pakistan expected to deliver on what Washington wants in prosecuting the so-called war on terror. This has two problems. First it ascribes to the rather modest aid a salutary impact that ordinary Pakistanis have simply not experienced. Second it offends national sensibilities, as purely transactional relationships are seen to be devoid of principles and shared objectives.
Economic help should be construed more in trade terms than in aid. A transformative step would be to give Pakistan’s clothing and textiles–the lifeblood of the economy– access to the American market on a preferential tariff, in line with other countries from the developing world. Or waive tariffs altogether for a specified period. Increased trade and exports create jobs and durable income. Aid usually does neither.
The US also needs to overcome its traditional reluctance to become involved in the subcontinent’s disputes. It should launch a diplomatic initiative aimed at reaching a broad accommodation between India and Pakistan, including a resolution of the 61 year old Kashmir issue. This would help shift the Pakistan army’s focus from a conventional threat from India, long its overarching priority, to counter-insurgency.
For most Pakistanis however, the litmus test of the next American administration will be whether it is prepared to treat Pakistan with respect. In the final analysis this intangible may count for as much as finding the right mix of trade and aid that goes beyond advancing America’s own interest. If there is a consensus in Pakistan about future dealings with the US, it is that the advent of a new Administration will offer a window of opportunity for Islamabad to recalibrate relations with Washington on the basis of national honour, respect and reciprocity. If the new American president could understand that, it would be a major step forward for such a critical relationship.
The writer is currently a fellow at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics and a former envoy to the US and the UK. This was adapted from a commentary broadcast on the BBC
The News, 29/10/2008