COMMENT: Saying it like it is —Zafar Hilaly - Friday, December 10, 2010

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With the failure of the US to harness Pakistan as a strategic ally, strains and tensions in relations are bound to rise. Resultantly, western economic assistance may also decline. Further economic strain on a hard-pressed public may lead to bouts of anarchy, making the army far less tolerant of politicians and inclined to assume full authority

In a cable, ex-Ambassador Patterson summed up the US-Pakistan equation: “The relationship is one of co-dependency — Pakistan knows the US cannot afford to walk away (and) the US knows Pakistan cannot survive without our support.”

Wrong. Pakistanis not only know, but are convinced that the US will ‘walk away’ or it will be made to leave Afghanistan by the pressure of American public opinion, mounting casualties and the cost of sustaining an open ended war. But being the timid soul that she is, Patterson dared not say so. She would have been accused of being a defeatist and Cheney would have had her for toast.

Where she was candid, however, was in describing Pakistan’s economic predicament and she was right. Pakistan is desperately in need of assistance from international institutions as well as from the US and other western countries due as much to its own abysmal handling of the economy as from the cost of the war and the global recession.

Pakistan today is in a quandary. Supporting a lost (American) cause makes no sense, yet, until the cause is abandoned as lost by the US, Pakistan has to play along lest desperately needed economic and military assistance is withheld. Of course, had Pakistan been certain of the US staying on for whatever the period required to prevail in Afghanistan — estimated by Patterson as 15 years — it may have grudgingly accepted the US’s enemies as its own. In the present circumstances, however, that is a fat chance.

Hence, the two countries are going their different ways. The US is immersed in the ongoing campaign to blunt the momentum of Taliban gains, hoping that the Afghan (Tajik) Army it will raise, train and fund will be able, by 2014, to keep the largely Pashtun Taliban at bay. On the other hand, Pakistan continues strengthening links with the Afghan Taliban who we seem convinced will prevail in Afghanistan once the US departs. Meanwhile, Pakistan is making some half-hearted moves to facilitate reconciliation between the Afghan Taliban and the Karzai regime even if it has as much chance of succeeding as the proverbial snowball in hell. The to and fro of Messrs Zardari, Karzai and Gilani to their respective capitals is a mere ruse. It has no lasting significance.

No wonder then that there seems to be no prospect of long-term strategic cooperation between Pakistan and the US, which is perhaps why a stubborn stand off has developed over the North Waziristan operation. However, tactical collaboration involving drones and special forces goes on, presumably because it creates the illusion of cooperation and enables US economic assistance for Pakistan to continue lest Congress take umbrage and throw a spanner in the works as the clock on the occupation winds down.

Having been deceived once, Pakistan is simply not prepared to take Hillary Clinton at her word that the US is in the region for the long haul. And it is not only the past that raises doubts. Current efforts by Washington to get India on board its Afghan strategy have fuelled them.

Holbrooke, for example, did not have to extend private assurances to New Delhi that the US dearly seeks an Indian role in Afghanistan notwithstanding Pakistani objections. If the US truly means to stay on in Afghanistan, India’s presence is superfluous. In fact, by excluding India, the US would have removed a key hurdle to vigorous Pakistani participation in the war and skirted a complicating factor in its relations with Pakistan.

Therefore, Washington is either confident that it can extract Pakistani support regardless or, alternatively, that the US does want India to play a role in strengthening the anti-Taliban and, perforce, anti-Pakistan forces in Afghanistan. Significantly, when earlier this year the deputy commander of the armed forces of the UAE informed a group of visiting American security officials that India was financing the Pakistani Taliban and Pashtun separatists in Pakistan, they gave the impression that they were not interested.

These are some of the Pakistani concerns that then Ambassador Anne Patterson should have passed on to Washington rather than merely hint, feint and point vaguely in that direction.

With the failure of the US to harness Pakistan as a strategic ally, strains and tensions in relations are bound to rise. Resultantly, western economic assistance may also decline. This will make it harder to finance the military both for maintaining a credible defence posture against India and from keeping the Pakistani Taliban from reasserting itself in areas where the army has achieved some degree of success. There is also the danger that further economic strain on a hard-pressed public may lead to bouts of anarchy, making the army far less tolerant of politicians and inclined to assume full authority.

To avert this possibility and to transform regional dynamics, John Kerry somewhat naively proposed that Pakistan conclude “new security arrangements with India”, which, he said, would please Congress and better enable the administration to help Pakistan. Kerry seems unaware that a similar idea was broached in November 1949 and was jettisoned because a No War Declaration between India and Pakistan would not make the slightest difference unless body and substance were lent to the declaration by devising procedures to solve pending and future disputes, which India refused to countenance then and will almost certainly do now.

A more sensible and prudent policy for the US would be to engage Pakistan as a key player. While the US still enjoys strong leverage over Pakistan; that leverage will weaken as NATO forces withdraw from combat operations or, when the Pakistani economy recovers or, conversely, if US assistance peters out.

Moreover, with India as its partner in Afghanistan, the US cannot get within hailing distance of a peaceful settlement without Pakistan’s cooperation. In addition, a US strategy that elevates India’s role in Afghanistan will only deepen the distrust between Kabul and Islamabad and that is a chasm that needs to be bridged and not widened.

The truth is that the US cannot expect Pakistan to be an ally if the US enjoys a strategic partnership with India and Afghanistan is part of that partnership. That is the writing on the wall. Patterson saw it but could not quite get herself to convey it.

The writer is a former ambassador. He can be reached at

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