Quest for an elusive mutual interest - Asif Ezdia - Monday, March 28, 2011

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The press release issued by the foreign ministry on March 18 on the “strong protest” made by the foreign secretary with the US ambassador at the massacre of civilians in drone attacks a day earlier is remarkable for several reasons.

First, it starts by saying that the protest was made under the prime minister’s orders and concludes that this was not a pro forma demarche. The clarification that the protest was not a formality was probably considered necessary, in view of Gilani’s advice to the US ambassador in August 2008 to ignore Pakistan’s public protests at drone attacks and Zardari’s assurance to the CIA director in November 2008 that, though it might worry the Americans, “collateral damage” did not worry him.

Second, only a week earlier, the general who commands the army’s Seventh Division in North Waziristan had defended the drone attacks in a rare briefing given at Miran Shah to Pakistani journalists. He asked them not to believe “myths and rumours” about the strikes. The reality, he said, was that many of those killed in these strikes were hardcore elements and that a sizable number of them were foreigners.

Third, the foreign secretary told the US ambassador that it was for the White House and the State Department to “hold back those who have been trying to veer Pakistan-US relationship away from the track.” The implication that there are some in the US (the CIA?) who are working at odds with the administration’s policy towards Pakistan is quite bizarre. Could it be that this part of the press release was added at the wish of the ISI, which is still smarting at having been outwitted by the CIA in the Davis affair in the eyes of the Pakistani public? Contrary to claims made by the ISI, US officials have said quite categorically that there was “absolutely no quid pro quo” from their side for Davis’s release and that there will be no curtailment of the CIA personnel or activities in Pakistan.

Fourth, the foreign ministry’s statement pleads that “Pakistan should not be taken for granted, nor treated as a client state.” This pious wish, needless to say, is not going to be fulfilled as long as our leaders continue to act as though Pakistan were a US dependency.

Fifth, the foreign ministry called for revisiting “the fundamentals of (Pakistan-US) relations.” Here the ministry is right – or half-right – because the US has already carried out a reassessment of its policy towards Pakistan in the wake of geopolitical changes of the last two decades. It is Pakistan that has not carried out this review. It is high time it did so. And not just because of the drone attack in Datta Khel. In fact, Marc Grossman suggested as much in a roundtable with Pakistani journalists on March 7 when he let slip an elementary truth for Pakistani policymakers to chew over. “US-Pakistan relationship must be based on mutual interest,” said the US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, “the challenge is to find that mutual interest.”

It is not an easy task, because Pakistan’s place in the US policy calculus has been slipping while the importance of India has grown as a result of geopolitical developments in recent years. The end of the Cold War meant that Pakistan was not needed by Washington any longer as an ally to contain the influence of its main global adversary and rival. On the contrary, it is India’s partnership that Washington seeks now, to counter two of the main challenges it faces in the new global configuration: the resurgence of China, seen by the US as the main threat to its global hegemony, and the perceived threat posed to Western societies by Islamic militancy from its breeding ground in Afghanistan, and lately also from Pakistan’s tribal areas.

The reorientation of US policy to take account of these developments resulted in the decision of the Bush administration in 2005 to “make India a global power” in Condoleezza Rice’s unforgettable words, and the accompanying “de-hyphenation” of relations with Pakistan and India. The key to the new policy was the India-US nuclear deal. Obama has continued this policy and taken it forward. On his visit to India last November, he declared support for the Indian aspiration to get a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and a practical end to restrictions on the export of dual-use technology to India.

Last month, a Pakistani was indicted in the US for allegedly exporting “nuclear-related materials” to Suparco and the Chashma Nuclear Power Plant. Such exports to Indian defence agencies like ISRO and DRDO would, however, be completely legal after their deletion from the US “entities list” earlier this year. Even technology for enhancing the safety of the Chashma 3 and 4 nuclear plants which China will be supplying to Pakistan falls under the US embargo.

That is not all. The US is also pushing aggressively to sell advanced conventional military hardware to India (which is already the biggest arms importer in the world) and is encouraging it to assume a bigger military and political role in East Asia, the Indian Ocean region and in Central Asia.

Clearly, there is a wide divergence between the strategic goals that the US is pursuing and Pakistan’s security interests. The famous “trust deficit” between the two is not the cause but the consequence of this fraught relationship. Even on the question of Afghanistan, where Islamabad and Washington share certain common interests, like the stabilisation of that country, there are marked differences over the future role of the Taliban and the approach to be adopted in order to promote a negotiated political settlement. The American pledge that it is not walking away from the region is both reassuring and disturbing.

Our present government, like the Musharraf regime before it, has chosen to disregard or play down the full impact on Pakistan’s security of the US policy of making India a global power. Instead, our leaders have been mainly focused on getting Washington’s backing to prolong their unpopular rule. The government might occasionally make loud noises at American actions, as it did over the Kerry-Lugar Bill and the Raymond Davis case, but that is only to soothe domestic public opinion, and the Americans know it.

It is therefore little wonder that Washington ignores Pakistan’s protests. Our condemnation of the drone attack on Datta Khel, the decision not to attend a trilateral meeting with Afghanistan and the US and the call for a review of bilateral relations have been treated in Washington as another storm in a teacup that Pakistani leaders occasionally have to kick up for reasons of domestic politics. American officials have indicated that, despite all the commotion, they expect business to continue as usual. Zardari’s visit to Washington, earlier planned for April, is being rescheduled and preparations are in hand for the next round of the “strategic dialogue” to be held shortly in Islamabad.

Pakistan will continue to be taken for granted, as the foreign ministry complained it is being, as long as our leaders remain in the supplicant’s mode that they are so comfortable with. After Shah Mahmood Quraishi was sacked last month, he spoke passionately about holding our head high in our dealings with the US. But this thought does not seem to have occurred to him while he was in office.

He too went through the charade of a “strategic dialogue” in which the US even refuses to include what should be the most important strategic issue – Pakistan’s access to civilian nuclear technology – on the bilateral agenda. If we are serious about this matter, we should refuse to schedule the next round of this dialogue unless this question is seriously discussed. Besides, we should tell Washington that unless Pakistan is assured of parity of treatment with India in nuclear matters, Pakistan’s logistic and intelligence support to the US war in Afghanistan should not be taken for granted.

The writer is a former member of the Foreign Service. Email: asif

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