A friendship’s flight path: A glimpse of the US-Pakistan case

Pakistan and US 1

“The US has delivered an object lesson in how not to conduct diplomacy”, said the first sentence of an editorial of Dawn, a leading Pakistan daily. (“US aid cut”, September 3, 2018)

The claimed “object lesson” was in reference to the US permanent aid cut to Pakistan of $300 million. The US announcement came only days proceeding to the planned Pakistan visit by Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state.

The editorial also said: “[N]ow what remains to be seen is if Secretary Pompeo will try and bully the Pakistani leadership during his visit or if he will be deployed in a more traditional good-cop diplomatic role.”

A strange relationship! Once it was strong and hand in hand. Now it’s going through aid cuts and possibility of, as the editorial said, bullying.

The editorial also said:

“The aid cut-off is not new […] But it will surely rankle in Pakistan and rightly so: more than the aid, it is the hectoring and aggressive tone of the Trump administration towards Pakistan […]”

The aid cut-background is broad: Spanning from Pakistan to Afghanistan to Iran.

Only days ago, Javed Zarif, Iranian foreign minister, had a warm visit to Islamabad. Pakistan, according to the editorial, “emphasized its support for Iran”. The editorial expressed its assumption: The support “could be a factor in the Trump administration’s apparent pique at Pakistan.”

The present state of Pakistan’s economy is pushing the state to international creditors, and, the editorial said: “[T]he US has already indicated a willingness to overtly bring geopolitics into the workings of the IFIs” (International Financial Institutions).

Who imagined during the “golden Ziaul Huq-days” that the relationship would face such a state of friendship – aid cuts and bullying? During those days Pakistan was the kingpin in the US’ Afghan War machine.

The US desires that Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan should move along the US designated path. But, Pakistan has its own agenda, and limitation. The agenda has developed from its interests and requirements for existence. The limitation is in-built. It can’t move along whatever path it likes. The in-built limitation is the brake on many of its wishes. A sorry state being constantly experienced by the state, which was once an enthusiastic partner in an imperial game! Once, US spy planes used to take off from Pakistan aerodrome to keep an eye on Soviet Union.

Against the current development, Raza Rabbani, a People’s Party senator, has suggested that Imran Khan, the Pakistan prime minister, should not meet Pompeo during his visit to Pakistan and only the foreign minister should hold talks with the US leader. (Dawn, “Rabbani urges PM not to meet Pompeo”, September 4, 2018)

The Pak senator said that protocol demanded that the prime minister should not meet Pompeo as whenever a Pakistani prime minister visited the US, he was not received by the US president. He also referred to the aid cut issue. He regretted that Pakistan has rendered a number of sacrifices for peace; but, the US was constantly asking to do more; not only the US has advised the IMF not to give loan to Pakistan, but it also ended military training program.

These sound sad, sound a deep pain and humiliation! But, what’s to do? A reality has developed over years and decades, has developed through closest possible collaboration in a war waged in another country – Afghanistan. It’s a reality difficult to escape. The reality has roots and components, which go unidentified by a quarter. The components are spread inside and outside of the country. A single component can’t reshape the reality.

Another report of Dawn helps look into the jumbled reality. The report said:

“[T]he Trump administration has made it clear that Pakistan will have to back the US strategy in Afghanistan if it wants good relations with Washington.” (“US spells out terms of engagement with Pakistan”, September 3, 2018)

For Pakistan, it’s a difficult path. Can it back the US strategy? What shall happen to its friendship with China, to its attempt to strengthen friendship with Russia, to the warmness it has shown to Iran if it backs the US strategy? How much wide is the space for maneuver there for Pakistan? On the other hand, there’s the condition of its economy, which is compelling it to have a hope on the IMF? Moreover, there are constituencies in home, which are to be coordinated with; and a few of these constituencies don’t depend on rhetoric, but on economic functions.

The US strategy, the Washington datelined Dawn report said, is “to use a combination of military and diplomatic pressures to force the Taliban to work with Kabul for restoring peace in Afghanistan.” The case thus turns more complex as there are other countries having their strategies in the case of Afghanistan, and those strategies are not always in cohesion with the US strategy and Pakistani interest.

The report indicated that Washington is looking for ways for an honorable withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan. Shall its competitors provide it the opportunity? How shall Pakistan coordinate between the competing interests, a few of which it can’t deny, if the opportunity is not provided to the US by its competitors? What shall happen if Washington likes to employ its proxies in a part of Afghanistan? For Pakistan, it’s a difficult account to reconcile.

The Dawn report referred to a telephone conversation between Pompeo and Khan last week: Pompeo asked Khan to take “decisive action against all terrorists operating in Pakistan”.

A tough asking from a friend! But the US was sending the same message with almost the same tone over a long period of time. How long can it be ignored while the economy needs IMF’s helping hands?

“Initially”, the Dawn report said, “Islamabad disputed the US version of this conversation, but later withdrew its objection.” Not an honorable and efficient show!

The corner will appear very narrow for Pakistan if it comes out that the positions of Washington and of a few other powerful countries, on which Pakistan relies or is trying to rely, are the same: “decisive action against … ”?

The Dawn report referred to a talk by Randall G Schriver, the US assistant secretary of defence for Asian and Pacific security affairs, delivered at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC.

The key points Schriver emphasized include (1) no restoration of US security assistance to Pakistan before the war in Afghanistan ends, (2) possibility of imposing more restrictions, and (3) Washington’s serious concerns about Pakistan’s growing economic ties with China.

The complex equation being faced by Pakistan is clear: Afghanistan-China-Iran-Russia-US-economic woes-IMF money-proxies-components in home-dependence-urgency of the situation-and others.

However, the senior US official said that the Trump administration was willing to give Khan some “space” to make their policies.

The “some space” doesn’t provide the scope to escape the reality with competing demands.

He indicated their “approach of cutting assistance and pressuring Pakistan on their relationship with the Taliban […] will be sustained.”

The indication is not without reason and not without meaning. The US has to move. It requires the move. It has limits beyond which it can’t move. The situation, cropped up over a long period of time, thus turns compelling.

The problems picture a fragile situation also; and the fragile situation bears implication for many others in the region. A certain situation compels an actor or another to behave in a way or to have a different approach having impact on others around.

Farooque Chowdhury writes from Dhaka.


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