The relationship between the United States of America and Pakistan is not monolithic. It consists of three distinct strands each of which has to be assessed separately. These are: The relationship with Pakistan’s military, its civil and political establishment and finally its people.
The most important of these strands is the relationship with the military. This is because, even in democratic Pakistan, it is the military that is the ultimate arbiter of matters of national security.
Historically the relationship has been very close. It began soon after the country’s formation in 1947 and strengthened as the Cold War started to ramp up. India’s lurch toward Socialism brought it in the fold of the USSR. This led to a congruence of interests: It became important for the US to have an ally in the region. And Pakistan’s generals saw access to US military assistance as a crucial counterbalance to India’s military strength. So started a lasting if sometimes turbulent relationship.
Many years later, in the aftermath of 9/11, the military ruler of the day, General Pervez Musharraf, was obliged to make the most fateful decision of his career. With reluctance, and great public opposition, he committed Pakistan to a new war in Afghanistan – a war that still continues to simmer. This so called war on terror has cost Pakistan dearly and its lasting consequences continue to shake the foundations of the state.
The relationship survived because of the perception by both sides that they need the other. But the world has moved on. And increasingly there is evidence that the bonds holding the two allies are fraying.
America first. The need for a counterbalance in the region disappeared with the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991. The period following this demise was characterized, as expected, by a weakening of the US – Pakistan relationship. Things deteriorated when the US imposed sanctions on Pakistan following a successful nuclear test in 1998. The following year General Pervez Musharraf overthrew the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. This added further strain on an already tenuous relationship.
Then came 9/11 and suddenly America needed Pakistan again. General Musharraf, almost overnight, went from persona non grata to America’s favourite foreign General.
The job in Afghanistan is not done. But America, or rather the American people have had enough. They have paid with taxes and blood for arguably unnecessary wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is no appetite for more.
In the meantime, India has done an about turn. Socialist leanings have been abandoned. Capitalism has been embraced. And the country has become an economic powerhouse. Indeed America views India now as an important economic partner. A symbiotic nexus links the two countries especially in information technology and outsourcing.
All this has meant that Pakistan is once again diminished in its relevance to the way in which the US sees the world.
And Pakistan? History has taught Pakistan’s military that the US is an unreliable partner. The relationship is of value so long as it serves US interests. When those interests shift Pakistan becomes redundant. For this reason the military has developed close ties with China.
There was a time when China could not compete with US weapons systems due to the vast technological superiority of the latter. The Chinese have spent the past few years investing heavily in defence technology. Not only is Chinese technology good, it is accessible sometimes at a fraction of the cost.
Add to this that the Chinese do not concern themselves with what happens inside Pakistan. Democracy or no democracy they are happy to continue their relationship. America on the other hand is a tempestuous partner. Sanctions at the drop of a hat. A querulous disruptive Congress demanding the unreasonable and sometimes the impossible.
So Pakistan’s military has hedged its bets. The relationship with the US remains but is no longer crucial. The relationship with China has become indispensable.
As for the US relationship with the civil and political establishment: This is predicated on the widespread belief that political change in Pakistan cannot happen without America’s blessing. Setting aside the validity of this belief, the mere fact that people believe it to be true gives the US disproportionate influence. Politicians especially are keen to please. The civil bureaucracy more or less falls in line.
Indeed it is the common people – the vast majority of the public – that America should be most concerned about. And here there is a problem. Talk to anyone on the street or, as is more often the case, the dirt lane, and ask them what they think about the US. The response will almost invariably range from distrust at best, to loathing at worst.
Dig further and the reasons become clearer: Is it not America who foists its agents – the corrupt worthless politicians – on us? Is it not America whose drones kill and maim many innocent people in FATA? How is it that Raymond Davis can kill Pakistanis on a public road and then leave the country scot free? Is not America responsible for wars in which thousands of Muslims have lost their lives? Is not America complicit in the brutality and injustice meted out by Israel to the Palestinians? The list goes on.
If it does not matter to America what the common Pakistani thinks then there is no need to do anything. But if it does matter then a strategy must be devised to improve public perception of the US. An important first step is a better understanding of how the common people think. And here there is a weak link.
Clearly issues of security and language barriers prevent American diplomats from descending in the villages and bazaars to gauge opinion. Fortunately there is another way. In every city in Pakistan there are people who write and think and who have their fingers on the pulse of the Pakistani people. They write columns for local Urdu newspapers, they are poets, and social workers they are men and women of conscience and sensitivity. But alas they do not know English. The most valuable source of information is, by default, excluded.
Understanding how common Pakistanis think is of course the starting point to devising a strategy. But it may be useful for the US to keep at least one general principle in mind: Do not attempt to manipulate political outcomes. In 2007 the US brokered, pressured may be a better word, a deal between Benazir Bhutto and General Pervez Musharraf. This allowed the former to return to Pakistan and participate in elections. But it also involved the passage of what is known as the National Reconciliation Ordinance. The NRO pardoned a veritable galaxy of political crooks and criminals who had looted public wealth and fled the country. And many of these found their way back into the corridors of power to once again plunder an already benighted people.
All this is in the past. Can the future be better for this chequered relationship? It can. But the onus to make it so falls on the US. If it continues to treat Pakistan as a disposable commodity to be used and discarded when its own agenda of the time is complete then there will be no change. The only way to build a strong relationship is to base it on principle and the recognition that the weak must be treated with respect and dignity.
The writer is Chairman of Mustaqbil Pakistan.