It is always a challenge for a middle-ranking power like Pakistan to maintain an amiable and functional relationship with the United States. This has been its dilemma practically ever since its birth. The demands from Washington are unending, and rarely is it willing to accommodate the other country’s viewpoint even if it happens to be an ally.
In the last 70 years, US-Pakistan relations have had several ups and downs but since President Donald Trump has assumed office the pressure on Pakistan has increased manifold. What then are present expectations and demands on Pakistan by the US?
From Washington’s perspective, the Haqqani Network and the Taliban Shura continue to benefit from sanctuaries in Pakistan’s tribal belt. It is not prepared to accept Pakistan’s version that these entities do not exist anymore. Moreover, according to US own official sources, 13% of Afghan districts are under insurgent control and an additional 30% are disputed where largely the writ of the Taliban prevails. In this situation, the Taliban or the Haqqani Network do not need Pakistani territory to operate. In any case whatever advantage these groups would have had in locating in Pakistan, is no more available to them.
The US government holds Pakistan responsible for the activities of all militant groups that are operating within its territories. Whereas it takes no responsibility for the militant groups that are launching attacks from Afghanistan on Pakistan. Furthermore, it turns a blind eye to the support of the TTP by Indian and Afghan intelligence agencies. There has never been any criticism of these hostile activities directed at Pakistan by any power centre of the US, be it Pentagon, the State Department, Congress or the White House.
The Trump administration’s policy of assigning a much bigger role to India in Afghanistan and overlooking its support for anti-Pakistan militant groups cuts against Pakistan’s interests. This remains a constant point of friction and a major reason for the Pakistan military not to take an antagonist position against the Haqqanis.
Washington finds the deepening China-Pakistan ties and especially its manifestation in the strategic project of CPEC cutting against its vital interests. The US is trying to build India as a strategic partner to counter China’s growing influence in the region. Conversely, Pakistan is broadening its options by improving its relations with Russia, which obviously is not being appreciated by the US. It is further deepening its strategic relations with Saudi Arabia, moving closer to Turkey and reinforcing ties with Iran.
President Trump’s contempt and ingrained prejudice towards Muslims in general also find its reflection in the bias shown against Pakistan. This predisposition is now a global phenomenon where the space for Muslims in certain countries, like Hungary and Poland, is shrinking.
It is unfortunate that the Trump administration has based its entire Afghan policy as viewed through the lens of a military conflict. It is not surprising that its implementation is placed exclusively in the hands of the military commanders. Afghanistan’s problems are essentially of a political and economic nature that require engagement and dialogue and less of military muscle. Moreover, the Afghan conflict has to be viewed in the larger context of rivalries between various stakeholders as well. If the US continues to place all blame on Pakistan for its failures in Afghanistan then it would be a wasteful exercise as history reminds us. The current challenges of Afghanistan have to be viewed in a wider context, wherein interests of Pakistan in particular need to be addressed whether these pertain to the role of India in Afghanistan or the type of policies that the US government pursues towards Pakistan.
In the Trump administration there is a wide consensus towards taking a hard position against Pakistan on counterterrorism. This is so obvious with threatening statements emanating from the top leadership at an increasing frequency. The Trump administration refuses to accept that there are different priorities and even conflicts of interests that need to be resolved through mutual accommodation. Being a superpower, the US considers its right to impose policies without any regard to Pakistan’s interests.
The US in the past had largely overlooked the consequences of Afghanistan’s exponential increase in drug production. This has enhanced the power of the local warlords with adverse impact on its economy and political evolution. The infighting and distrust between President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah further undermines their ability to govern effectively. All these inadequacies find a convenient cover under the hubris of Pakistan’s alleged misdeeds.
It is ironic that Pakistan, which has suffered most due to the civil war in Afghanistan and would benefit enormously if peace was to return, has to be repeatedly admonished by the US. America conveniently ignores the adverse impact of its policies that it pursued in the region stretching over three decades that are largely responsible for aggravating conditions in Afghanistan. Using the Haqqani Network as a whipping boy may be a convenient alibi but not a solution that would bring peace any closer. What is not apparent is that the unceasing hostility of the US makes it increasingly difficult for a weak government in Pakistan to maintain a delicate balance between catering to US demands and avoiding the wrath of the Mullah constituency.
On the one hand, the US Congress is fast taking measures to restrict aid to Pakistan. On the other hand, strong voices are being raised at home especially by Imran Khan and the Jamaat-e-Islami to do away with US assistance. Indeed in the current context accepting any favour of US assistance especially when these are accompanied with harsh conditions requires compromising one’s national pride.
The broad contours of this relationship and their complexity demand greater appreciation of each other’s national interest. This would be the only way that both sides will be able to normalise relations.
Pakistan has to move towards shedding its policy of supporting militant groups as an instrument of foreign policy. This is not a viable option anymore. The US should respect Pakistan’s genuine national interest and avoid pursuing a one-sided India-biased policy. Both countries need each other for their own valid reasons. Success lies in how best to accommodate these interests.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 3rd, 2018.