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Right step, wrong direction


By Imtiaz Gul

The Friday Times, October 25, 2013


It has never happened before. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif began his Washington visit with a courtesy call on the US Secretary of State John Kerry at the State Department – a shocking visual for most Pakistanis indeed.

Heads of governments usually go to the White House, while the Secretary of State calls on them. They visit the State Department only for a conference or a trilateral meeting hosted by the US government.

But in this case, in a travesty of standard diplomatic practice, Sharif himself walked in to John Kerry’s office in an apparent bid to win the US over, probably too eager to enlist American support.

Regardless of whether the prime minister gets something tangible other than John Kerry’s sympathy, his appearance at the State Department came as a rude shock to most Pakistanis, and flew in the face of all those officials and commentators who used to deride General (r) Pervez Musharraf for regularly courting low-ranking US officials such as Christina Rocca and Richard Armitage. Tariq Fatemi, now Nawaz Sharif’s foreign affairs adviser, and stalwart Shamshad Ahmed frequently criticized Musharraf for allowing “deputy and assistant secretary level US officers into his office.”

It is not likely that the odd move will actually help remove the deep-seated mistrust and misunderstandings that have dogged ties between the US and Pakistan for decades, for the simple reason that the relationship is beset with, and often disrupted by, mutually conflicting narratives, misplaced expectations and historical suspicions.

In the words of Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s former ambassador to Washington, quoted in a New York Times interview recently, “the suspicion in Pakistan is that the United States wants to defang Pakistan’s nuclear program, that the United States cannot accept a Muslim country having a strong military, and that America wants Pakistan to be subservient to India, just as it wants the Arabs to be subservient to Israel.”

The misunderstanding, he says, lay in Pakistan’s expectation that the United States would help build it up against communism (during the cold war era) as well as ensure its parity with India. These expectations also became a means of “generating public opposition to the United States in Pakistan,” as an attempt to get leverage in relations with Washington.

Haqqani, derided in Pakistan for his alleged role in the farcical Memogate affair that discredited former ISI chief General Ahmed Shuja Pasha beyond redemption, also points to the American misconception about Pakistan. The Americans have believed all through that they can somehow bend Pakistan to their will simply with the leverage of aid. Aid has never given the Americans the leverage they thought they would have. “As far as the American public is concerned, it has never really seriously engaged with Pakistan, and the understanding of most Americans about Pakistan is through single-issue prisms: nuclear program one day, terrorism the other. There has never been an effort to understand 180 million people and their aspirations.”

These views resonate the long litany of chequered US-Pakistan relations – what Pakistanis view as “arrogance and high-handedness,” is indeed considered as a normal behavior by the sole super power that has often tended to treat individual countries as “projects” – as dictated by its geo-political considerations.

The fact that the US withheld much of the coalition support funds in the aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s elimination in May 2011, and that President Obama requested the Congress to release $1.6 billion in CSF and other assistance two days before Nawaz Sharif’s arrival in Washington, only reinforced  this perception. Once again, it seemed, the US administration used the usual “aid bait” to extract commitment of cooperation from Sharif, who probably believes that key to solving Pakistan’s multiple crises rests with the US.

The US undoubtedly holds the key to international and multi-lateral funding and a single step by Washington always entails a ripple effect across all important commercial and political capitals, but the American goodwill has its limits. While Pakistanis legitimately demand greater access to trade in American and European markets, they also need to understand that the real solution to Pakistan’s problems lies at home.

Without a marked shift in Pakistan’s security paradigm, the nature of its relations with the United States will largely remain tactical, fraught with mistrust and occasionally marred by misunderstandings.

Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and the author of the recently released book Pakistan: Before and After, published by Roli Books, India

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk