The writer is a former envoy to the US and the UK, and a former editor of The News.
The setback to Pakistan-US relations over the Kerry-Lugar law could not have come at a more a critical, even seminal moment for the relationship and the region. Pakistan has embarked upon a decisive military operation against militants in South Waziristan. President Obama is struggling to take crucial decisions on the Afghanistan strategy in which Pakistan will be expected to play a pivotal role.
What should have been a moment to affirm the relationship by a legislative measure to enhance economic assistance became a catalyst for discord. An opportunity to re-calibrate ties was missed in the predicable storm of protest that evidently neither Pakistani nor American officials saw coming. This showed an astounding lack of sensitivity about public sentiment in Pakistan.
It is ironic that the original authors of the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act, 2009, Senators (now vice president) Joe Biden, John Kerry and Richard Lugar, did not include in their various drafts (and the Senate version adopted on June 24, 2009) the provisions that have provoked so much resentment.
It was the House of Representatives version spearheaded by Congressman Howard Berman whose intrusive clauses prevailed in the end, and that invited the indignant response in Pakistan. Not only did the welter of externally supervised prescriptions defeat the avowed concept of partnership but they were justifiably seen by most Pakistanis as unacceptable encroachments on the country’s sovereignty. The measure’s hearts-and-minds effect was all but lost in the furore engendered by provisions that oblige regular Administration certifications that Pakistan is adhering to a wide range of conditions.
It would be a mistake to judge the political fallout in Pakistan simply in terms of the parliamentary debate coming to an abrupt and inconclusive end which averted an unfavourable resolution. More important is the negative impression this has left on the public mind and its broader ramifications for a relationship that continues to suffer from a mutual trust deficit.
The government’s damage-limitation effort resulted, after the foreign minister’s dash to Washington, in a Joint Explanatory Statement issued by the bill’s Congressional sponsors aimed at facilitating “accurate interpretation of the text”. This persuaded few Pakistanis. Countries are bound by law, not declarations of intent. Moreover the declaration did not address the core issues of public concern.
The willingness of Congressional leaders to issue a statement to assuage opinion in Pakistan does raise an important question. Would accurate and timely communication that sensitized Congressional and Administration leaders to the expected response in Pakistan have helped to remove and amend the controversial clauses? Why were both Pakistani and American officials unable to anticipate and convey these sentiments at the right time, thus avoiding damage to their relationship?
It is important for Pakistani and American officials to accurately read the reaction, learn appropriate lessons and avoid such misjudgements in the future. Three sets of factors explain the depth of the negative response: the substance of the conditionalities, the tone and language and a backdrop of decades of mistrust.
The burden of history is well-known. The rollercoaster nature of the relationship – in which Pakistan has lurched from being America’s most allied ally and most sanctioned ‘friend’ to being cast as a ‘double-dealing’ country – is deeply embedded in public memory. Given the history of legislatively-driven sanctions and cut-offs in economic assistance and military sales, Pakistanis interpret laws that set unwarranted conditions as an echo of this unhappy past.
For those who heard Vice President Biden assure them during his visit to Islamabad in January that Washington wanted to take relations to the pre-Pressler days, the conditions were at striking odds with that promise, and reinforced a transactional relationship.
The crux of objections to the law turns on its intrusive and expansive benchmarking: linking security assistance to a plethora of conditions. Some official spokesmen argued that as these conditions do not apply to economic assistance, criticism is unjustified. This sets up a false and misleading dichotomy: conditioning any component of assistance means conditioning relations with the country.
The objections on substance involve and imply the following:
* The law mandates the Administration to monitor or secure cooperation from Pakistan in areas ranging from counter-proliferation (unlike non-proliferation this term implies the employment of force), specified areas of counterterrorism to the way military budgets and promotions are made.
* The Act sets up permanent benchmarks that will condition not just security assistance but define the relationship in its other dimensions as well. In fact this ‘template’ provides a framework within which bilateral relations could henceforth be conducted and possibly emulated by other western nations.
* The conditions reinforce the longstanding perception that the US views its assistance to Pakistan as an instrument to determine aspects of its internal as well as external policies.
* They convey a lack of trust especially in Pakistan’s armed forces which also calls into question the value of the cooperation it has offered.
* The conditions will hang like the sword of Damocles over relations much like the Pressler law did.
* Some provisions when read together have been construed as an attempt to probe into Pakistan’s nuclear programme. If, as American officials say, these have been misinterpreted, concerns on this count should have been allayed ahead of time as well as efforts made and political capital expended by the Administration to remove legal ambiguities.
* Under the shadow of these conditions every action taken by Pakistan against militancy will be perceived in the country as dictated by Washington, jeopardizing the national consensus that has recently been forged.
Similarly the gratuitous language in parts of the law is exceptionable. Take for example section 203.This mandates a certification by the Administration based on a determination whether the government of Pakistan is making progress on “ceasing support, including by any elements within the Pakistani military or its intelligence agency to extremist and terrorist groups”. Yet the target of this indictment is expected to provide the cooperation the US wants.
The most telling comment on this has come from the American journalist David Ignatius who wrote in The Washington Post that the final bill “had the tone of a dictate” reflecting “a special form of American hubris” and which became “a self-inflicted wound” for Washington. Similarly a Wall Street Journal editorial called the bill’s conditions an unwarranted “thumb in the eye of Pakistani national pride.”
The Obama Administration would do well to seek to reverse the damage by showing respect and encouraging Congress to also respect the sentiments of the Pakistani people as well as the country’s red lines of its sovereignty. The way the US is perceived after all affects the extent of cooperation it can get from any government in Islamabad.
On the Pakistan side of the equation there is much that this affair has revealed about government dysfunction as well as its leadership’s non-institutional conduct of the affairs of state and foreign policy, which have become a hallmark of the PPP Administration.
Institutional dysfunction and disconnect, the intensely personalized conduct of foreign policy, bypassing institutions and not taking parliamentary allies and other political forces in to confidence all contributed to Islamabad’s flawed engagement with the process leading up to the adoption of the Kerry-Lugar Bill.
Had this not been the case it is conceivable that the outcome might have been different. In part because of its desire to take “sole credit” for the American aid package the government behaved the way it did. In its anxiety to secure the aid package it overlooked its obligation to try to ensure that the law’s provisions were not an affront to the country in the eyes of its people.