Summits donâ€™t usually sign off on much that isnâ€™t promised in advance. The trilateral exercise in Washington DC, by that count, should not have been loaded with the baggage of high public expectations. What it may have done, and certainly appears to have accomplished, is a lowering of the high public heat between Pakistan and the US, even if the Afghan side of the triangle remained as tricky as ever. Given the headlines that Pakistan is generating in Washington, however, an urgent public review of what the two sides should be thinking of doing is in order. If we look at the Washington side of the strategic bargain, there are three broad areas that need serious attention.
One, there has to be a sense in Washington that managing public opinion in Pakistan about a partner with a predatory footprint on sovereignty diminishes the ability of any government in Islamabad to create an unambiguous consensus on the battle against extremism. The US-operated drone, or UAV, has become a powerful symbol of American violation of Pakistanâ€™s territorial integrity. This is reinforced on 51 news channels in vivid graphics every time there is a drone attack. It compromises Islamabadâ€™s project of a public partnership with Washington, because the most frequently asked question in Pakistan is framed in negative outlines: how can a partner be making a target out of another partnerâ€™s territory? And if so, what are American objectives in Pakistan? Policy-makers in Washington have to understand that strategic military models that worked for the Sunnis of Iraq may not work for the Taliban in Afghanistan, and what worked in Afghanistan will certainly not work in Pakistan. And if the US appetite and capacity for occupation and regime-change in Pakistan is not on the options menu, as it would be to its peril, it is best to work with alternatives that donâ€™t challenge Pakistanâ€™s sovereignty.
A history of Washington coddling unpopular dictatorships, and being an unreliable partner, has also led to public ambiguity about converging USâ€™ strategic goals with Pakistanâ€™s own interests. This is a major branding loss for a fragile democracy that is struggling to create a mass constituency against militancy as its own home-grown initiative. In a terrain where suicide bombings have come to Pakistan primarily after September 11, this is as tough as it gets. Things are changing after the Taliban exposed their expansionist motives post the Swat deal, but political buy-in to mutual Pak-US strategic goals remains compromised when coercive diplomacy becomes a dominant medium of public exchange from the US.
Two, the policy drift on key national security roadmaps and outcomes from both the US and Pakistan needs to be addressed. While terrorism is seen too often as a purely military challenge, the existential worries, whether real or imagined, of Pakistanâ€™s security establishment are ignored to mutual peril.Â Regional rivalries and the dangerous politics of crisis-driven outcomes remain a major driver in official bilateral discourse. On India, US leverage after the sweet nuclear deal should have been high, yet no US template for moving the two South Asian rivals from conflict resolution to confidence management has appeared in the public domain. The Pak-India composite dialogue that had made some progress over the last few years could not withstand the Mumbai crisis, and remains hostage to electoral rallying in India. Despite President Obamaâ€™s campaign commitments to revisit issues related to Kashmir, ever since incumbency weighed in, the US promise for mediation between New Delhi and Islamabad has gone off the official radar. Pakistanâ€™s new status as an offshoot of Afghan policy has added to public unease about Washingtonâ€™s agenda in the region. It has also reactivated the Kashmir issue as a possible core reality in mindsets that had settled down to the benefits of reduced hostility and conflict with India.
Anyone with feet, instead of prospective boots on the ground in Pakistan, will tell you that the biggest challenge the government faces is managing ownership of the battle against terrorism, not because the people of Pakistan tolerate militancy, as they certainly do not, but because an international military presence in Afghanistan, whatever its merits or demerits is seen largely as a hostile occupation next door. This has fuelled a deep vein of inter-state Pashtun resentment against the US, a dynamic that defies the logic of rational outcomes about possible endgames in Afghanistan. The reality that Pakistanâ€™s military establishment has an old fear of an unfriendly government in Kabul, or a non-Pashtun one, has just not been factored into a possible regional peace for the region. The failure of the Bonn process to be broad-based and inclusive, the cut and run after the collapse of the Taliban regime in Kabul, the focus on Iraq, and eight years of a military presence have not led to success in Afghanistan. The Taliban that had dispersed have re-grouped and challenge sixty percent of Kabulâ€™s writ in Afghanistan. This does not reflect policy succes, nor does it reflect a plan. It would be good to see one.
Three, it is clear that we are in a moment of opportunity as much as a period of challenges. The challenges stem from both the arenas of domestic politics as much as they do from foreign policy lag. Partisan politics and systemic creep bogs urgent action down in both countries. In Washington, the tone is bullish on investing in democracy in Pakistan, but for a new administration the learning curve is steep. The sense that foreign policy defeats have flat-lined the image of several presidencies overhangs the capital like a mist on the Potomac. Obamaâ€™s thrust on recalibrating a damaged transactional relationship between Pakistan and the United States into a more broad-based and multi-layered project is part of a key change, and is filtered through the prism of an open commitment to a sustained engagement by powerful Democrats in Congress. Yet broad gaps in grappling with the levers of a complex strategic and political dynamic remain un-addressed. While a great deal of attention and nuance has emerged in public and academic discourse on Pakistan recently, the extent to which the instruments of American soft power have been, and can be used, remains severely underestimated.
In one sense of the word, the post-Obama public message is that the wheel has been changed on this policy engine. But the message ignores one fundamental, which says that the wheel essentially needs a classic re-invention. For now, the broad dynamic of seeking a partnership on strategic goals with reference to terrorism remains fundamentally the same as it was under the Bush administration. It remains driven by military tactics and the diplomatic management of negative outcomes. So while Ambassador Holbrookeâ€™s empire of South Asia experts clog the corridors of the State Department with an unprecedented reservoir of intellectual resource, policy outcomes still suggest that the Pentagon remains the font of policy planning as well as execution.
Nor is there any real sense of the magnitude and scale of the task ahead in terms of managing bilateral relations between the two countries. Despite Swat, the Pakistani government has control of state power in the mainland. But as a result of the use of that power, it is traumatised by the largest refugee population since the October 2005 earthquake. The US can, just for a start, take a leaf out of its own book in that period, and re-emerge as a heavy lifter in its partnerâ€™s distress. That will earn it as much goodwill among the Pakistani public as $ 1.5 billion a year earned it in the cash-strapped Pakistani government. President Karzai was right about one thing when he repeatedly said in Washington that money canâ€™t buy you love. But he forgot to ask one thing: is the US even shopping for love in the region? Maybe it has been looking at the wrong policy instruments all along. This is a good time to try new some new ones. All of them donâ€™t come with a heavy price tag.
The Writer is a former Federal Information Minister and Member National Assembly from the Pakistan Peoples Party.