Good news, bad news - Najam Sethi - Sunday, April 10, 2011

The good news is that relations with India may improve. The bad news is that relations with the US may deteriorate. The fear is that worsening relations with the US could lead to an economic and political crisis that would set back Indo-Pak relations and also plunge us into an unprecedented existential crisis.

The import of India’s recent cricket diplomacy should not be underestimated. It is the first time since Mumbai that India has abandoned its ‘core conditionality’ of discussing Pakistani-inspired terrorism to the exclusion of other elements of the composite dialogue. This is as profound a gesture as that of General Pervez Musharraf in 2004 when he abandoned the ‘core conditionality’ of discussing Kashmir to the exclusion of the other elements of the composite dialogue.

In General Musharraf’s case, there were two radical new elements of the initiative: Pakistan closed the tap of jihad in Kashmir and offered out-of-the-box-thinking on Kashmir that buried the UN Resolutions for good. This was carried forward by way of a back channel dialogue that went quite far. In Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s case, there are also two new elements of the Indian initiative: India has agreed to share details of the Samjhota Express case which exonerates state or non-state elements in Pakistan and indicts Hindu extremists instead; and it relents pressure on the ISI to crack down on Hafiz Saeed, the leader of the Lashkar e Tayba, following the acquittal of two Indian Muslims in the case of Ajmal Kasab who were alleged to have confessed to direct links with Mr Saeed. One factor seems to have been in common between the initiatives taken by General Musharraf and Dr Singh – that of time. General Musharraf cut the ice midway through his term. Dr Singh is doing much the same, a year into his second term when he doesn’t have to worry about too many coalition partners tugging at his sleeves.

The Indian initiative is based on the notion of ‘permanent peace’ articulated by Dr Singh. For tactical reasons South Block isn’t talking about the ‘composite dialogue’ which is a red rag to the Indian media in the wake of Dr Singh’s abject backtracking after Sharm el-Sheikh last year. Instead, there is stress on a “comprehensive” dialogue. The Indian foreign secretary’s remarks in a recent interview are worth noting: “Dialogue is the most intelligent means of addressing points of contention...We continue to deal with the civilian democratic government in Pakistan, the elected representatives of the people there...the interface is with the civilian government...”. Four rounds of secretary level talks – commerce, interior, defence and foreign – are scheduled in the coming months, followed by a meeting of the foreign ministers, with the aim of clinching a trip by Dr Singh to Pakistan in which at least one breakthrough is announced on Sir Creek or Siachen. This is no mean agenda for the next six months or so after a freeze of five years.

On the US-Pak side, however, two recent US reports highlight the growing distrust and tension between the two partners. President Obama’s bi-annual report to Congress highlights Pakistan’s lack of commitment to the war in Fata and worries about its negative consequences for the US roadmap in Afghanistan. “There is no clear path to defeating the insurgency in Pakistan”, says President Obama, who is obliged to lay out his plan in June for troop withdrawals from Afghanistan by 2014. The report indicts Pakistan’s military but also goes on to slam the civilian government as weak, divided and unable to deal with Pakistan’s myriad developing crises. The response in Congress wasn’t unexpected: ditch Pakistan and embrace India. “Pakistan is about to go broke or collapse”, warned Congressman Gary Ackerman, a New York Democrat, “the brightest light in South Asia’s constellation and the strategic centre of gravity in the region is India”. The contempt with which Mr Ackerman treats Pakistan should not be missed. Dismissing the State Department argument that the US should continue to help Pakistan face up to the challenges, he said: “So if we give another $20 billion, I guess, would they like us in the morning, as we gave $20 billion through another night?”

A second report by the State Department on the state of human rights also raps Pakistan’s ‘culture of impunity’ in which its security forces (ISI and MI) operating outside the civilian domain are guilty of gross human rights violations.

Under the circumstances, hectic efforts are underway to repair the damage before it becomes irrevocable. Pakistan’s foreign secretary is on his way to Washington to clear the air and try and clinch a meeting between President Asif Zardari and President Obama that was postponed during the height of the Raymond Davis affair not so long ago.

The problem lies in two differing perspectives. The US-Pakistan relationship is billed as ‘strategic’ by Washington which wants Pakistan to ‘do more’ to help the US short term agenda in Afghanistan. But Pakistan complains that the relationship is actually ‘transactional’ because the US isn’t trying to understand and help Pakistan’s long term regional concerns. The crisis comes at a time of mounting problems for the Obama administration: the Republicans are demanding drastic spending cuts and President Obama is worrying about winning the trillion dollar war in Afghanistan before his term is up. Pakistan is both a big recipient of US economic and military aid but also a critical snag in the US agenda in Afghanistan.

If US-Pak relations deteriorate and the aid and grant pipeline doesn’t gush in the short term, Pakistan’s economy will start to melt in the absence of a civil-military consensus on radical economic and political reform that leads to belt tightening and sacrifice all round. The peace initiative with India will be frozen again and the promised peace dividend will evaporate. Pakistan will face a further breakdown of law and order and civil strife, compelling a new round of enforced political experimentation. Unfortunately, however, given past record and current disabilities, this may prove to be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back.

The writer is Jang Group/Geo adviser on political affairs.

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