The Pak-US relations were facing the worst low when Sherry Rehman took over as the ambassador — the Raymond Davis, OBL episodes, the killing of soldiers at Salala… Here she talks about her tenure in Washington and how she fought the anti-Pakistan narrative
By Wajid Ali Syed
The News on Sunday (TNS): Was it difficult following Ambassador Haqqani?
Sherry Rehman (SR): Transitions are rarely seamless, and given the level and trajectory of multiple crises the Pak-US relationship was facing for multiple reasons, despite the fact that I never, ever relished a foreign posting, I did my best.
TNS: You came at a time when the relationship was rocky, how did you manage? What were the concerns Americans showed back then?
SR: Yes, the bilateral relationship was facing its worst low when I was yanked out of parliament and sent in to deal with the crisis. After the multiple setbacks of 2011, the Raymond Davis and OBL episodes, the killing of our soldiers at Salala literally spun the relationship into an extraordinary tailspin. My first job was to steady the potential decline, and to get both sides to start understanding what the other needed. The hardest part was the first six months, when I had to shuttle back and forth between Washington and Islamabad to explain how we could best unlock the latest and toughest knot.
In Islamabad this was the first time that any major foreign policy decision, not rhetoric, actually went to parliament, which is crucial for actions rooted in public consent. Washington was not used to waiting for Pakistan’s democracy to speak, and it took months of working days that blurred into nights in the winter months to explain why Islamabad is taking its time for the resumption of opening our highways to the NATO pullout from Afghanistan, and to advocate empathy to key Congressional leaders. And that the need for an apology for Salala was not my own hobby horse, but was required by the system, across the policy board, including parliament, to open the doors to resumption of full ties.
Representing Pakistan’s interests, and explaining its multidimensional texture, was my only agenda, and am grateful I had good American interlocuters in the State Dept, White House and Pentagon, who did appreciate how we felt after months of constant meetings, but conveying that across the board, especially to Congress was a real daily challenge, even for them.
Today, 18 months after I took on that red-eye job, I am humbled as well as happy to say that the relationship has gone from crisis management to a search for constant structured conversations and a sustained institutional dialogue between the two countries. The next ambassador will have his or her hands full, as I did in the last six months, of managing the content, structure and level of working group visits and meetings between both sides.
TNS: Is the relationship getting better or worse?
SR: It would be self-serving for me to honestly answer this, but in my non-Armageddon view of the geopolitical and moral universe, it is certainly better than it was. I call this equation the “new equilibrium” for want of avoiding other clichés; but this stability will depend on many things, including continuity of new regional policies, and a candid articulation of the same.
Relationships with superpowers are anything but static. And the United States is at a defining moment of its global supremacy. It is pivoted on the axis between being the sole hyperpower — the only one still able to project military power incomparably, and its complex response to the challenge of the evolving Asian century. In this context, if we measure the Pak-US relationship today from where it was 18 months ago, then it is at a stable trajectory.
My aim was never to take it to the giddy heights of over-selling it as one that is indispensable, as we often tend to, if we look at our bilateral engagement since the 1950s. Nor did I ever characterise it as one profiled to doom or disengagement. The search for sustained common ground like economic interests may seem like an unambitious or unglamorous goal, but believe me, it is the one that is more honest and loyal to Pakistan, and addresses our need to redefine our international role as a responsible and peace-mongering, democratic, global player.
TNS: Regarding your efforts to mobilise Pakistanis in the US — how did it go?
SR: As I keep saying, an embassy is as good as its advocates abroad. The Pakistani community can be a powerful lobby for changing perceptions about Pakistan in the US, but they have several handicaps, one of them being lack of information from Pakistan, which we tried to change by extensive, exhaustive outreach.
Yet, despite the fact that the Pakistani community in the US is a relatively well to do, professionally qualified group, it is not an equally empowered one. Its power is miniscule in proportion to its wealth and numbers, especially if we measure its success in terms of influence when we compare to other communities, who are both organised and vocal. Interestingly, given their personal and partisan rivalries, I was told that they will never come together even if I invite them together as ambassador, but my experience with them was quite positive.
They not only came together informally, but even responded to my formal meetings and calls as community leaders when I video-conferenced with them from Washington to our four consulates in Houston, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. Other Washington-based families became close friends and allies in advocacy and lobbying for Pakistan, as we often amplified our efforts by working the legislators together, as is the norm on Capitol Hill for other countries. No one ambassador can ever attend to all their community needs, to their multiple fund-raisers for Pakistan, their constant worry about the motherland, but I tried to be as responsive and involved as possible. I am grateful that I was never given anything but the utmost respect and even affection, by community leaders publically despite their loyalty to different political affiliations.
TNS: Biggest challenges facing a Pakistani ambassador?
SR: Pakistan’s ambassadors to the US have often faced down tough criticism, and an anti-Pakistan meta-narrative. The challenges are many, but to my mind, the key lies in what I call “Explaining Pakistan”, not just representing it. The embassy cannot be just an authentic messenger, it has to function institutionally as a powerful centre of advocacy for Pakistan’s interests, but also as an interpreter quite literally, of the changing environment in Pakistan.
Because the American policy milieu is currently shaped so heavily by the weight of domestic pressures, and the debate on limits to American power in a global Age of Austerity, the challenge for Pakistan is huge. Years of Pakistani dictatorships, and the policy choices made by both countries together, and American media stereotypes have caricatured the Pakistani experience for Americans in stark black and white. For the nuance of change in our national, heterogenous story to come through, Pakistan will have to hammer its message regularly and with greater clarity than we tend to employ.
To my mind, diplomacy as taught in the traditional sense is unable to cope with the complex challenges facing foreign policy practitioners everywhere. For a Pakistan advocate in the US, the need for conventional diplomacy to include public diplomacy is even more acute than anywhere else. America is a society that likes to articulate and record almost everything. Policy is made in the marketplace of often competing ideas, and failures require an everyday explanation. By not enlisting voices that amplify our message, we forego our chance as a country, to be heard in this marketplace.
Some of our embassy’s successes, fragile and reversible, with Congress were only made possible, because I emphasised strongly that the embassy’s senior officer corps use their time at their level on as much active public lobbying for Pakistan as I did, as Ambassador. I encouraged the Deputy Chief of Mission, for example, to regularly lead a team to meet staffers as much as I would meet the Congressmen or Senators. On security issues, he would go out as a team with the Defence Attache, to brief key people at their level as well. This strategy was a game changer in many negative situations, which we could not advertise of course. Without multiple levels of engagement, the solo battle of reversing negativities is a pointless exercise. It may make me famous as ambassador, but it will leave no institutional imprint.
TNS: Looking forward, what should be the emphasis of the US-Pak relationship?
SR: In an ideal world, the focus of the Pak-US relationship should be enhanced trade and economic opportunity. As it stands, the Pak-US relationship will be a function of three things, among many: One, the equilibrium will hinge on how it is managed. This means that unless we continue with our strategic pivot of peace and enhanced trade with all, including neighbours, and make non-interference in Afghanistan a reality, a stable equation in 2014 with anyone, let alone the US, will be a challenge.
Many milestones will need to be navigated carefully and with clarity, especially given the high potential for a growing surge of volatility from next door. Pakistan has high stakes in Afghan stability, but no silver bullet for conjuring that stability, and we should keep saying so.
The security transfer in Afghanistan, the upcoming presidential election there, the state of the porous border, the lack of interdiction structures on the NATO-Afghan side will all have a cumulative and potential bearing on our relationship with the US, as much as our own policy coherence and renewed executive effectiveness against terrorism, with clear goalposts on managing counter-terror blowback and promoting plurality and national inclusion, will need to gather momentum.
Two, the bilateral relationship will go the way both sides address and imagine it. The famous trust deficit will have to be addressed in structured conversations that repeat the main message, especially on the impact of drone attacks on the public imagination. Timelines and functionality too will play a part. If for Washington, Pakistan remains a function of US policy for Afghanistan for the most part, then the relationship will change after 2014.
If for Pakistan, the US remains a policy zone of extensive and long-term strategic expectations, then disappointment may certainly be an outcome. Three, the stability of the bilateral relationship will also depend on how both democracies manage and lead public opinion. Pakistan is now poised to be the fifth largest democracy in the world.
With this weight comes responsibility, first to ourselves, then to how we define our policy agenda abroad. If we expect Washington to scale down its rhetoric towards us, then we too should opt proactively for the path of leadership over partisan gains. Denouncing terrorism unanimously and acting on a national counter-terror, counter extremism plan will change our status and our game. Domestic policy, internal soundness, rebuilding energy and economic strength will be our best bets.
The era of big game geopolitics may look like it is here to stay. It certainly is, but its locus has shifted, like the restless American gaze, to shores farther east. And that is another interview entirely!