Published in The Independent
M. Serajul Islam
The US, led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Pakistan, by its Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi met in Washington this month for third Pakistan-USA Strategic Dialogue this year, a forum set up by President Obama for cooperation outside those related to counter terrorism. However, counter terrorism issues dominated the talks in which the Pakistanis were on the defensive with accusations from the US administration about lack of commitment of the Pakistan military. The Pakistanis were also on the defensive on human rights issues with certain units of Pakistan’s military accused of extra-judicial killings. These killings came under the scrutiny of the Leahy Amendment that requires cessation of military aid to a country whose troops are involved in such acts. In the past, the law has been applied to military aid to Indonesia and Colombia.
In the end Pakistan had its way but only for the time being. The US pledged US $ 2 billion for 2012-2016 that will be in addition to the US$ 7.5 billion that has already been approved for civilian projects. In announcing the aid, Secretary Clinton did not bring up the issue of the human rights violations to avoid embarrassing Pakistan whose support is crucial to win the war on terror. Instead she said: “The United States has no stronger partner when it comes to counterterrorism efforts against the extremists who threaten us both than Pakistan.”
Pakistan’s earlier alliance with the United States was not a pleasant one. The two came together to stop the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. There are a few parallels in these two US-Pakistan alliances. In 1979, it changed Pakistan’s pariah status internationally under General Ziaul Huq for usurping power by military coup. In 2001, the international community had kept Pakistan at arm’s length after General Moshraff came to power through a military coup. On becoming USA’s ally in the war on terror, Pakistan became the closest friend of the US and the West. During the Soviet invasion, Pakistan had received extensive military aid from the United States. After General Ziaul Huq had turned down a US 325 million in military aid as “peanuts” given under the Carter administration, Pakistan ended receiving in excess of US 3 billion in military aid under President Reagan. In providing military aid the, the US overlooked allegations of human rights violations by Pakistani military.
This time, there are a few differences. The world has changed meantime and the Cold War is over. In the post Cold War era, particularly in the aftermath of 9/11and the war on terror, international politics has become far more complicated. Tackling the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was comparatively an easier task than the war on terror where the enemy is a known one but where it is like the phantom lost in between Afghanistan and Pakistan in terrain so intractable that finding the terrorists and annihilating them is like finding the proverbial pin in the hay stack. But for the US and the West, the war on terror must be won for them to rest in peace. Pakistan is the country whose help they need the most. The alternative to Pakistan’s help is for the US to take over Pakistan and pursue the Taliban and the Al Qaeda that is an impossible proposition.
The above notwithstanding, at various international forums, the US has left Pakistan in no doubt that its patience is running out. Secretary Clinton has openly criticized Pakistan’s civilian government of corruption and incompetence. US officials have clearly shown their preference for the military while also making it known to them that they have not showing full commitment in pursuing the Taliban and the Al Qaeda in Pakistan’s northwest. President Zardari has been informed by the United States directly that it would not hesitate to bomb “150 terrorist centers” in Pakistan if there is any terrorist attack on US soil that it can trace back to Pakistan.
Thus there is considerable pressure on Pakistan Government about delivering on its commitment to tackle insurgency and the money it is receiving has very strong strings. It is in fact a carrot and stick policy that the US is pursuing with Pakistan. There is a new element entering into the US efforts to win the war on terror. Earlier the US encouraged the Karzai administration to isolate the moderate Taliban from the extremists through negotiations. Now there are hints that the US is getting directly involved in such negotiations. When her attention was drawn to this, Secretary Clinton remarked that stranger things have happened in politics. Defense Secretary Robert Gates clarified that the US is not directly involved in these talks and only offering counsel when necessary. There is also news that NATO has been providing the Taliban with safe passage for such talks.
The US is thus looking into more options than depending totally on Pakistan for winning the war on terror or winning it militarily. The war itself shows no signing of going towards a resolution. Although, the US stills has shown no signs of abandoning Pakistan, it is beginning to show signs that it is seeking alternatives. Meanwhile, the association with USA is causing to Pakistan the same social and political upheavals that it faced after the end of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; in fact much more. It may again wake up and find the Americans gone, and this time left with a potato hotter than the one it was left holding the last time. Pakistan, if it knows what is best for itself, should look back at history while keeping an eye on the new options that the US is seeking, not forgetting that the US President has his strategy set for starting withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in a year’s time.
There are a few developments that are emerging that may have impact upon on the way Pakistan-US strategic alliance goes in the time ahead. One is President Obama’s forthcoming visit to India. Washington is weary of China’s “ambitions” in the Pacific. Recent cooling of US-China relations on other issues could encourage the United States to look with concern at China-Pakistan strategic alliance that the Indians could use against its nemesis Pakistan during President Obama’s India visit.
Pakistan’s present predicament in its relationship with US, despite the huge amount of US aid given and committed is thus far from a happy one. If the US again leaves as it did the last time, Pakistan could be left holding the potato that Pakistan would be left holding could very easily burn more than its hands; it could seriously threaten the state itself.
The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies. He can be reached on email firstname.lastname@example.org