The United States and Pakistan had the sixth round of their strategic dialogue in Washington recently. The U.S. Pakistan Strategic Dialogue Joint Statement issued after the talks details extensive ongoing cooperation in the fields of energy, trade, investment, education, and science and technology, and reiterates the commitment to continue it. It also speaks of close cooperation in counterterrorism, especially action against Al-Qaeda and its affiliates and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)/Da’esh. But on regional security issues, strategic stability, and non-proliferation, there were largely hints of policy differences glossed over by generalities, with Afghanistan being the exception where the need as well as desire for cooperation was obvious.
Overall, the statement, though strong on rhetoric was mixed on substance. It was essentially an aspirational statement. And given the complexities of the U.S.-Pakistan relations and their recent history, one would say much work needs to be done by both sides to realize its objectives.
Regardless of whether one labels the U.S.-Pakistan relationship strategic or transactional, it has served the interests of the two countries over the last six decades. Yet it has not been a normal bilateral relationship. More often than not, the two countries have been allies on one issue while being antagonists on another. The United States lived with or tolerated the differences when there were overriding strategic interests. But when these interests had been served, it resorted to sanctions, and Pakistan responded with its own devices. It is not just Pakistan that took advantage of the United States; Washington did too in equal measure. In sum, they lost as much as they gained from the relationship.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Over time, both the U.S. and Pakistan governments accepted the losses grudgingly and gains ungratefully and still found each other relevant in times of need. But times have changed. Since the September 11 attacks, the relationship has gotten entangled with the ongoing war in Afghanistan. It is never easy to handle a war-related relationship, especially when that war has not been going well. This is even more so when there are multiple issues and stakeholders with competing interests and priorities. Also impacting the relationship is Washington’s growing ties with India, along with a whole set of new security issues which have agitated public concerns, fueled by a 24-hour news cycle and an activist think tank community.
This has affected public opinion as well as politics, preventing a coherent and workable policy towards the war in Afghanistan as well as U.S.-Pakistan relations more generally. As a consequence, Pakistan is seen as having undermined the war effort and the stabilization of Afghanistan. Though Islamabad has been a good partner in the war on terrorism, it is being defined not by what it has done but by what it has failed to do. A whole new industry of writings on Pakistan representing different interests has emerged in what often seems like a competition for negativity. This has caused recurring tensions and irritants in the relationship. The U.S. Congress keeps talking about cutting off aid, while the White House keeps harping on the Haqqani network. And among the chattering classes, the common refrain is that U.S. aid to Pakistan has been a dead loss.
The fact is the bulk of the aid, the so called Coalition Support Fund, is not aid. It was essentially reimbursement for Pakistan’s cost in deploying about 170,000 troops in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province for years and for providing road communications for the logistics support to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops in Afghanistan. Deployment of forces for combat costs money, as Washington knows from its own experience in Afghanistan and Iraq. Should Pakistan expect no compensation for its work?
Pakistan has a lot to answer for, but not so much for the ‘failure’ of the Afghanistan war. Even if one accepts that it has been a ‘failure,’ there were many causes for this. The military campaign in Afghanistan lacked a political strategy. Furthermore, in the rush to war, there was little effort at comprehending the nature of the threat or the enemy. Even at the outset, it was clear to close observers of the region that the Taliban were not going to fight; they were going to run away to Pakistan where they had a support. Was it difficult to understand? The lack of strategic context of the war, incoherent war aims, insufficient resources and poor execution soon undermined the war effort, especially as attention and resources shifted to the Iraq war. And thereafter, the strategy would change every year, much like it continues to change even now.
The United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan have all made mistakes. Afghans have to realize that despite the fact that Washington has contributed a great deal to create a new Afghanistan, they themselves have not played their role well. The national unity government clearly is not working, and the so-called Kerry plan has not been implemented. And regardless of whether policymakers want to admit it or not, the ethnicity issue also continues to remain a major factor. Afghans are a great people, and theirs is a great country. But they need to face the reality of its internal fissures, the role of the regional strong men and power brokers, and the corruption which is hindering their efforts at stabilization. Groups like the Taliban or Haqqani network are the resulting consequences, not the root causes of Afghanistan’s troubles. Afghans cannot keep shifting the onus of their failures to Pakistan. The Taliban are in Pakistan because no one is defeating them in Afghanistan.
Taliban are not invincible. They have to be defeated politically within Afghanistan and that can only be done with good governance, rule of law, ethnic unity and by taming the regional centers of power. As Ioannis Koskinas pointed out in a two-part article in Foreign PolicyMagazine last month, though the fracturing of Afghanistan’s body politic looms, it can be stopped. “Ultimately, many Afghans believe that the country’s security woes have more to do with poor Afghan government choices than Taliban battlefield brilliance. At their core, the greatest performance failures of 2015 were political, rather than military,” Koskinas wrote. “The fall of Kunduz City to the Taliban in late September 2015 was emblematic of such grand deficiencies”.
As for Washington, it has to realize that strategic issues cannot be dealt with through a merely transactional relationship with Islamabad. The United States and Pakistan need a strategic relationship. Forging this is not easy; both countries need to contribute. Pakistan does have legitimate security concerns that need to be acknowledged. The United States also has to recognize that Pakistan does have a strategic importance as it affects American interests in India one hand and Afghanistan on the other. Now that the United States is leaving Afghanistan, it needs Pakistan’s help even more to stabilize Afghanistan. Besides, as others have rightly observed, the region’s significance has been enhanced considerably as a consequence of China’s growing involvement there as well.
Pakistan, for its part, must understand that if it wants a strategic relationship, it will have to earn it. While national interests may diverge in some cases, where Pakistan has a shared interest with the United States, Islamabad needs to bring its policies closer to those of Washington, especially when it comes to addressing America’s core security concerns. Jihadists have to be dealt with without distinction not only for America’s sake but also Pakistan’s as well. It is crucial that Pakistan explain its position and policy responses on this issue unambiguously and effectively from high echelons of the civil-military leadership. Silence conveys complicity, a lack of commitment, or, at best, ambivalence. This is not good for establishing mutual trust with which Pakistan has already taken one chance too many in the past.
Both countries also have to get rid of old assumptions. Pakistan should shed its belief that the United States cannot walk away from the bilateral relationship; the United States should abandon the notion that Pakistan cannot survive without U.S. help or that cutting off aid will beat Pakistan into submission. The fact is that Pakistan would rather forgo aid than do something against its national interest. Lastly while de-hyphening the relations with India and Pakistan may be fine, the United States must recognize that it cannot advance its broader interests in South Asia without a South Asia strategy.
Has Pakistan been a good partner thus far for the United States? I think so. But if the United States thinks otherwise, it should keep in mind that only good policies make good partners. Then Washington doesn’t have to worry about issuing blank checks.
Touqir Hussain, a former Ambassador and Diplomatic Adviser to the Prime Minister of Pakistan, is Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University and SAIS Johns Hopkins University, where he is also Senior Pakistan Visiting Fellow. He writes on South Asian security issues, Iran, and Afghanistan.
The U.S.-Pakistan relationship remains an enigmatic story of converging and competing interests, and above all, magnificent delusions that the former Pakistani Ambassador Haqqani elaborated in his recent book, Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding, about the mismatched expectations of both countries. The primary focus of this relationship remains security-focused for both sides — from the Cold War to the recent U.S. withdrawal in Afghanistan. The large security apparatuses of the two states define how to view the other at any given moment — more so in Pakistan where anti-Americanism is an article of policy for populist politics.
However, there is also a people’s story that accompanies this relationship. There are nearly 1 million Americans of Pakistani descent, and many more Pakistanis who wish to study, work, or migrate to the United States. Things are not the same after 9/11, many complain, and the Pakistani government’s complex, almost schizophrenic, perspective on the United States continues to delineate the Pakistani public’s imagination.
This leaves little wonder why a PEW Research Center Global Attitudes Project opinion poll found that only a small fraction of the Pakistani population has a favorable view of the United States, with nearly 38 percent considering the United States a threat in 2014. The poll had equally baffling results for the American public opinion: Only 18 percent of Americans had a favorable view of their front-line ally. These themes and narratives find resonance in Pakistan’s artistic world. Daniel Markey’s recent book, No Exit from Pakistan: America’s Tortured Relationship with Islamabad, provides a nuanced account of how narratives of abandonment and national honor have clouded public perceptions. Many in Pakistan believe that these are deliberate stratagems by policymakers to keep the engagement costly. As Markey noted in his book, there are counter-voices in popular culture. For instance, a pop band, Beyghairat Brigade, mocks ideas like national pride and challenges the drummed-up notions of nationalist symbols.
Another major voice in Pakistan questioning the national narratives has been that of the Ajoka Theatre group. Ajoka (meaning “dawn of a new day” in Punjabi) gave three performances in Washington, D.C., this past weekend, presented by the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics and the Department of Performing Arts at Georgetown University. These performances were part of the laboratory’s two-year Myriad Voices Festival that aims to expand awareness and understanding about Muslim societies through the performing arts.
The play, Amrika Chalo, is a satire starring a number of Pakistanis keen to obtain U.S. visas, all for different purposes. In a comic vein, the script comments on issues of immigration, fantasy that the U.S. popular culture generates, and the attitudes of U.S. diplomats handling their power — while recognizing the limits of that power. The action takes place in the visa section of the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan, where a motley group of applicants narrate their aspirations. The visa-seekers include a businessman, a potential illegal immigrant, a student, a puppeteer, a politician, a cleric, and the aging parents of a Pakistani-American. While there, they each imagine the land of opportunity, each with their own version, thus underlining the idea that there cannot be one single perception of the United States, as the anti-American mantras would suggest.
The play also tackles the issue of how U.S. visa authorities act in these circumstances. There is some humiliation as well as diplomatic effort to address the large demand for U.S. visas. But there is also arbitrariness to the granting process that the play mocks. One U.S. official in charge of security is called Raymond — a nod to the CIA operative Raymond Davis, who killed two Pakistanis and caused a major crisis between the two states in early 2011. Raymond is treated as a human, fallible character and is lampooned with abandon.
The climax of the play occurs when jihadis raid the embassy and take U.S. officials, as well as the visa-seekers, hostages. The process of negotiations held by the U.S. Embassy is a metaphor for the real-life situations that the United States has found itself in over the decades. The jihadis’ demanding of U.S. visas for multiple wives and children also comes as an unsurprising shock, as does the United States’ grant of this demand. This acceptance of demands at gunpoint can be seen as analogous to U.S. policy in the AfPak region, where it has often agreed to begrudgingly.
Cynthia Schneider, now the distinguished professor in the practice of diplomacy and co-director of the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics, was featured in the play. This must be a first for a former U.S. ambassador to take cultural diplomacy beyond boardrooms. “Artists hold up a mirror to society and politics, and so provide different perspectives from the political and policy focus that dominates Washington,” says Schneider, who was the moving spirit behind this collaboration.
Shahid Nadeem, co-founder of Ajoka and the playwright, considers this production to be a critique of both sides in equal measure. In Nadeem’s view, art cannot replace political commentary but is influenced dramatically by international and regional affairs. Ajoka is a theater group that continues the rich tradition of folklore in South Asia. Historically, folk tales and artistic endeavors have been an attempt to foster a dialogue by the ruled with their rulers. For centuries folk literature has challenged power in the region and Ajoka’s work — loosely referred to as street theater — continues that legacy. The theater group was established under the repressive regime of General Zia ul-Haq (1977 to 1988) and employs simple tools of folk performance art — parody, music, dance, and satire — to question the brazen decisions made by the Zia regime, especially with respect to political and cultural freedoms. In recent years, Ajoka has also presented major plays on historical figures that challenged Pakistan’s official Islamization. One such play, about a secular Mughal prince, Dara, is currently showing at the National Theatre in London.
Amrika Chalo, therefore, engages in a dialogue with the Pakistani power-clique — a few dynastic politicians, the security establishment, and the clerics — who have popularized the view that the United States is the source of all evil in Pakistan; and in doing so, shatters the myth by calling attention to the voices of ordinary Pakistanis who wish to engage with the globe. At the same time, it also critiques the U.S. policies — from visa procedures, periodic support of Islamist groups, arrogance of power, and pragmatic disregard of “principles.”
No bilateral relationship can progress without an honest exchange. The U.S.-Pakistan relationship needs a dialogue that moves beyond the narrow and time-bound specifics of security and war and encompasses people and progress. Given Pakistan’s security and development imperatives, this bilateral relationship cannot be wished away. Similarly, as history bears testimony, the United States cannot forsake the country either, despite the current voices in Washington, D.C., calling for such action. A large Pakistani diaspora in the United States also makes it vital to expand people-to-people relationships. Arts and culture, in the ever-shifting boundaries of global understanding, matter. Ajoka and Georgetown just demonstrated that.
Raza Rumi is a visiting fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, Washington DC. He is also a consulting editor at The Friday Times. His writings are archived at www.razarumi.com.
Tags: Pakistan, South Asia, United States
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