By Air Commodore ® KhaIid Iqbal                  

Interstate relations with America are akin to living on a river bank that changes its course every four years, leaving the other party either flooded or in drought. However, in case of Pakistan these relations functions on day to day basis; each side issuing ‘to do lists’ too frequently with an urgency call of ‘should have been done yesterday’. Stresses caused by this sort of perpetual ‘breathing down the neck’ approach causes frequent ruptures.

Pak-US relationship has generally remained transactional, marred by mistrust. This is indeed a strategic dysfunction undercutting the durability and maturity of these relations. America is quick to bailout Pakistan during its dire times, be they natural disasters or man made calamities, but then suddenly it decides to walk a couple of steps back, rather crudely,  and loses the genuinely earned public good will. Soon the cycle restarts!

The Davis affair has, yet once again, brought forth the prospect of fragility in this relationship and the pitfalls of not being on the same page, at all levels. According to the details of understanding reached between the two sides, after the release of Raymond Davis, the US will pullout as many as 331 Americans of Davis type, involved in espionage and subversive activities under diplomatic cover. It reinforces the perception that the US runs covert operations within Pakistan.

There were certainly better ways to resolve the Raymond Davis issue in a win-win setting. But the indecent haste has left a bad taste in the mouth, for all parties. Suspension and slowing down of American financial aid only hardened the popular anti-America sentiment cutting across the political divide.

Likewise, washing of dirty linen with a fanfare corrodes the perspective in the United States as well; questions are asked about the futility of aid to a country whose people disapprove of America so emotionally. Though main stream political parties stay away from anti-America public demonstrations, yet the pitch of noise generated, in Pakistan, on the eve of every such row, is baffling to American public. Hence, the political space in the United States for supporting a strategic relationship with Pakistan has shrunk incrementally.

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There is a wide spread perception in America that Pakistan is supportive of the Afghan Taliban factions which attack foreign forces in Afghanistan, it takes-on only those Taliban which attack Pakistan, and Afghan Taliban elements operate from Pakistan’s FATA against US/NATO forces in Afghanistan. America considers that Drone strikes against targets in Pakistan’s FATA as legitimate use of force as these attacks are with Pakistani consent. The US is critical of governance and law enforcement inadequacies in Pakistan and frequently counsels it to augment revenue generation capacity and broaden the tax net. The US does not share Pakistani perception of a threat from India to its security.

Periodically the US media and think tanks churn out fearsome speculations about ‘Pakistan’s nukes’ not being secure enough; they also portray the span and growth rate of Pakistani nuclear programme  which is much larger than life size.  Over projection of indicators to hint at rapid radicalization of society and meltdown of Pakistani economy are also a favourite past time for American intellectuals.

Conversely, in Pakistan there are perceptions that the US does not trust Pakistan and operates unilaterally in Afghanistan. America uses drones to hit only those factions of Taliban who operate in Afghanistan and spares those who carry out terrorist activities in Pakistan. Covert American operations are a source of perpetual disturbance in Pakistan. America is encouraging separatist elements in Baluchistan. Pakistanis feel that US strategy in Afghanistan is essentially beyond the stated objectives and the intent is to stay in Afghanistan on permanent basis, though with diluted military presence. Another point of worry is American tolerance of strategic space for India in Afghanistan and turning its eyes away from clandestine Indian activities to destabilize Pakistan.

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Despite American claims to the contrary, professional assessments indicate that Afghanistan’s military capacity will remain far below the minimum sufficiency level and southern Afghanistan and FATA would continue to be in turmoil for an indefinite period with dire implications for Pakistan.

Moreover, there is a feeling that cost paid by Pakistanis for siding with the US in the war in Afghanistan has never been fully appreciated; and that the pressures on Pakistan and suspicions about its policies are unfair and that the real target in American cross-hair is Pakistan’s nukes.

In all probability it does not suit the US to go beyond pinpricks and push Pakistan towards radicalization, destabilization or balkanization. Likewise, America is aware that in the wake of severe criticism on the issues of nuclear safety and security, Pakistan has strengthened the custodial control over its nuclear assets. Therefore, neutralization of Pakistani nuclear assets, either by taking over or taking out, may no longer be a viable option.

Recent US drone attack with an unusually high death toll of over 40 drew a rare condemnation both from civilian and military leadership. Missiles were fired when a peaceful gathering of tribal elders was in progress in North Waziristan. Attack came just a day after Raymond Davis had been set free. It was an arrogant US response. It was another incident of use of disproportionate force while jumping the gun on faulty intelligence.

US Ambassador was summoned to the Foreign Office and a strong protest was lodged. Munter was categorically conveyed that ‘It was evident that the fundamentals of our relations need to be revisited…Pakistan should not be taken for granted nor treated as a client State,’ the Foreign Office said.

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If the American action was harsh, Pakistan’s reaction has also been interpreted as equally worrying for the state of Pak-US relations. Pakistani leadership must have weighed their response. The Raymond Davis release embarrassed the national leadership and it couldn’t afford to look weak twice in succession.

There has been a long-standing demand from the people of Pakistan to revisit relationship with the United States as it is merely based on unilateral Pakistani cooperation in war on terror, whereas Washington spares no opportunity of arms-twisting and squeezing the country; hence, it is time to tell the United States that you can’t be our friend and foe at the same time.

However, overall relations between the United States and Pakistan are rather better than the apparent facade. Pakistan is keen to talk about the need for stability in Afghanistan. The United States has also moved closer towards meeting Pakistan’s point of view for a political settlement in Afghanistan by holding direct talks with representatives of the Taliban. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during a speech to the Asia Society last month, reinterpreted the longstanding preconditions for talks: ‘that the insurgents lay down their arms, accept the Afghan Constitution and separate from Al Qaeda’. She described them as ‘necessary outcomes’. This shift was suggested to President Obama by General Kayani during his last year’s visit to America.

US-Pakistan relations have endured many storms in the past and have survived after every dip. Both sides need each other and both sides know it. Davis saga offers an opportunity to give the Pak-US relationship a lasting context, concrete substance and sustainable direction. America needs to mix pragmatism to its approach of pure realism; Pakistan needs to condition it oriental style emotional approach by adding a pinch of realism.