In his initial days in office President Barack Obama has signalled a fresh start to America’s engagement with the world, pledging to temper power by “humility and restraint” and place greater emphasis on diplomacy to secure its goals. Will this promise translate into a new approach towards relations between the US and Pakistan?
Today this relationship is characterised by mutual frustration engendered by a growing trust gap. While the leaderships of the two countries place a high value on their ties, their publics and legislatures increasingly view the other with suspicion and depict each other as an unreliable ally. The advent of a new administration in Washington offers a window of opportunity to redefine and recalibrate relations. Both sides need to guard against unrealistic expectations but be prepared to engage in an honest dialogue.
Three things stand out about this troubled relationship from a historical perspective. First, relations have lurched between engagement and estrangement in almost predictable cycles. Second, these swings have occurred under both Republican and Democratic administrations, which have taken turns to impose and then lift sanctions. And, third, the episodic nature of ties has reflected Washington’s changing strategic priorities and shifts in global geopolitics, which in turn has reinforced the perception among Pakistanis that their country is seen from a tactical perspective, and not in intrinsic terms. This burden of history has contributed to a negative dynamic that will need to be addressed if relations are to be placed on a more consistent and positive footing.
By naming Richard Holbrooke as special representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Obama administration has put one of America’s most prominent international trouble-shooters in charge of a region which it has accorded top priority. But in limiting Holbrooke’s formal brief and not extending it to encompass South Asia, this diplomatic prescription for a “regional approach” appears to be at odds with the diagnosis that Obama himself has made. Before his inauguration he indicated more then once that the road to a stabilised Afghanistan runs through a Kashmir solution, because that would enable Pakistan to switch its strategic focus from the eastern to its western frontier.
Holbrooke was originally envisaged as special envoy for South Asia, but his formal mandate was circumscribed after Delhi mounted a frenetic diplomatic effort to prevent “re-hyphenation with Pakistan.” But it would be a mistake to conclude that this will preclude him from engaging with the sources of South Asian instability. Once he familiarises himself with on-ground realities, he will have to take into account the interconnectedness of issues in the region, not least because of Washington’s anxiety that prolonged tensions between Pakistan and India could hobble any “new” approach to stabilise Afghanistan. Moreover, as Afghanistan has been the new arena for the old subcontinental rivalry to be played out, Holbrooke may well engage with Pakistan-India relations via Afghanistan. So he can be expected to approach the region with a wider scope.
It is also up to Islamabad how seriously it engages Holbrooke and sets out its own security concerns, driving home the reality that there can be no durable solution to tensions between Pakistan and India unless Kashmir is addressed, and that Pakistan’s ability to act forcefully and decisively on its Western border rests critically on a peaceful eastern frontier. And if Washington simply “pressures” Pakistan to rein in Kashmiri militant groups without balancing this by urging Delhi to seek a political solution of Kashmir, this would relieve India of its responsibility to stabilise the region. Virtually every crisis in Indo-Pakistani relations has been directly or indirectly related to Kashmir. Any strategy of simply “leaning” on Pakistan is flawed. No state can be pressed onto a course unless it regards that to be in its own interest.
Engaging the new US administration requires Islamabad to evolve a clear and achievable agenda that reflects national priorities and interests. As Washington gears up for “relentless diplomatic efforts,” Islamabad must be ready with a clear and coherent approach that is designed to reset ties with the US and align these with the sentiments of its own people. After all no policy is sustainable unless it has public support. Such an approach should include the following elements:
1) Seek an end to unilateral US Predator attacks on Pakistani territory, which have inflamed public opinion, undercut Islamabad’s own counter-insurgency efforts and risk destabilising the country. Washington should respect the democratic will as expressed in Parliament’s resolution of Oct 23, 2007, and instead help strengthen Pakistan’s own capacity to contain militancy.
2) Reject any conditionality attached to assistance promised under the Biden-Lugar bill. The administration’s announcement that this assistance will be linked to Pakistan’s counterterrorism performance in the border region is at odds with the approach advocated by President Obama during the campaign. It also contradicts assurances given by Vice President Joe Biden during his recent Islamabad visit of taking relations to the “pre-Pressler” days. Conditioning aid turns on its head the very rationale for assistance that US officials have themselves been advocating: that assistance to stabilise Pakistan will empower it to deal more effectively with security challenges. An approach that treats Pakistan from the paradigm of “hired help” rather than valued ally, should be unacceptable to Islamabad. It only reinforces the transactional nature of ties that are so resented by Pakistanis.
3) Convey that Pakistan is neither looking for nor needs US military assistance to build its conventional capability. But to strengthen its counterterrorism capabilities, it requires helicopters, night vision, radars, electronic intelligence devices and other advanced technology. Absent these, the Pakistani army will continue to fight an asymmetrical conflict with conventional implements.
4) Insist on the criticality of trade, rather than aid, in helping Pakistan’s economic recovery. The country’s economic lifeline, textiles, is in deep trouble. Providing Pakistani garments and textiles access to the American market would be a transformative act. The present US trade policy imposes higher tariffs on Pakistani goods than those from many developing nations. Tariffs on Pakistani textiles are also much higher than on goods from many rich countries. Enhanced trade creates jobs and income. Aid usually doesn’t, as Pakistan has learnt from the three aid packages of the 1960s, 1980s and post-9/11. Jobs and income are more effective anti-terrorism tools than bombs and bullets.
5) Assert that a genuinely “regional approach” should address Pakistan’s security concerns with India, especially Kashmir, and Afghanistan. Washington should be made to recognise the regional nature of Pakistan’s security challenges and acknowledge that many issues in the region are so interconnected that they can set each other off.
6) Insist that as the US reshapes its Afghan policy, Pakistan’s views and security are factored into the review. Unless Pakistan and Washington’s NATO allies are all on board and “buy into” the revised approach, no strategy will work. Such a review must aim at a fundamental overhaul, not just a policy tweak.
7) Counsel the US that simply sending more troops to Afghanistan without a significant change in strategy will be counter-productive. The war in Afghanistan is unwinnable if it continues to be waged the way it is now. A troop surge on its own will not reverse the downward spiral. Instead, it will increase the sense of occupation and multiply targets for the insurgency. At the peak of its occupation of Afghanistan, the Soviet Union deployed around 150,000 troops and also had another 50,000 Afghan army forces available. This did not avoid a spectacular defeat in terrain that has been the graveyard of empires.
8) Policies to stabilise Afghanistan should not unintendedly end up destabilising Pakistan, as has been the case with the flawed approach and military missteps of the Bush era. The stated US goal of helping to stabilise Pakistan has been undermined by actual policy pursued in the region.
The Obama Administration should consider a more realistic approach to Afghanistan that focuses policy on the “core” project (defeating terrorism), rather than a “big project” of multiple goals that can mire it in a war without end. This means distinguishing between what is vital (disruption of terrorist networks) and what is desirable but best left to Afghans to undertake (transforming society, building a centralised state and promoting democracy). This should aim to separate Al Qaeda from the Taliban, and engage the latter in a reconciliation process. Building confidence by dialogue should be followed by the offer for an eventual withdrawal of foreign forces in return for a cessation of attacks and support for the creation of a viable Afghan national army and security apparatus.
For its part Pakistan needs to review its counter-militancy strategy to ensure that its patchwork actions in FATA, as indeed Swat, are replaced by a consistent policy of robust law-enforcement to establish the writ of the state. And the government must make unrelenting efforts to mobilise public support to counter the forces of violent extremism. Its counter-insurgency strategy must be anchored in a set of interlocking political processes and involve the strengthening of local, civilian administration, to ensure that security objectives are sustainable.
In evolving a credible road map for stabilisation of its border areas and sharing this with Washington, Islamabad should also specify redlines so that the US understands the limits of cooperation and commits to respect Pakistan’s sovereignty. With Mr Holbrooke expected soon in Islamabad, Pakistani officials should prepare to press their views and vision of the future relationship with clarity and boldness.
The writer is a former envoy to the US and the UK, and a former editor of The News.