The Pakistan-US strategic dialogue indeed marks a new phase of bilateral relations and a clear departure from the dismissive US attitude that had begun under President Bill Clinton. The events that led to the deterioration in the Pak-US relations included the October 1999 coup, the Kargil conflict earlier in that year and of course the Kandahar Hijacking episode that ended on December 31, 1999. These events had turned General Musharraf and the state of Pakistan into a pariah in the West. The mood then in Washington and New Delhi was one of outrage. Pakistan stood condemned as a rogue state abetting terrorism, and this characterization also brought the US and India closer than ever, resulting in the launch of the Indo-US strategic dialogue in early 2000.
The 9/11 attacks brought about a qualitative turn around in the US view of Pakistan, as the former needed the latter’s active involvement for the US-led coalition’s anti-terror campaign in Afghanistan. But all along, until about six months ago, the US security establishment found itself at odds with its Pakistani interlocutors, occasionally spewing venom, shrouded in suspicion and alleging non-cooperation.
Towards the end of 2009, Pakistan-bashing gradually came to a halt. Despite the civilian government’s internal strife and its struggle for survival, the US moved ahead with a new understanding on how the army chief General Ashfaq Kayani wanted to tackle the counter-insurgency. Kayani’s presence in Washington and the attention he received during his recent visit to the US reflected this new thinking within the US security establishment, also enunciated by Richard Holbrooke a few days before the Washington talks.
Let us consider the following factors that led to the strategic dialogue:
a) At least for the time being, the US, has stopped viewing Pakistan through the Indian prism, and has acquired an independent understanding of Islamabad’s position. This means that the Indian leverage has given way to the new approach that the US administration cannot ride on the Indian back for reconciliation in Afghanistan.
b) Pakistani military leadership has, it seems, succeeded in conveying its concerns to Washington and has also convinced the American interlocutors that these concerns must be factored in not only extracting maximum cooperation out of Pakistan but also for charting a roadmap for conflict settlement in Afghanistan.
c) Both the US and Pakistan appear to be on the same page as far as the future course of action in Afghanistan is concerned.
d) The US has also realised that the army remains the real power broker in Pakistan and it has to be engaged while supporting the façade of civilian rule.
e) Rather than perceiving Pakistan as an irritant, the US is now compelled to view it as part of the solution, and perhaps a guardian of US interests in the region along with India.
As a whole, this situation augurs well for Pakistan. This is why most of the country’s leadership indulged in chest-thumping as a result of the perceived gains during the strategic dialogue with the US. It is indeed a huge step forward in improving Pakistan’s relations with the new American administration but regardless of the actual outcome in the months and years to come, the burden of the strategic dialogue rests on the shoulders of the Pakistani leadership. It will be their responsibility to translate this dialogue into real opportunity.
Seen from the US perspective, strategic engagement with Pakistan is driven by its national interest which compels it to extricate itself from the Afghan morass. For that the administration and the security establishment have decided to offer a “strategic hug” to Pakistan. This engagement will stay as long as the Americans think it serves their purpose.
As for Pakistan, the current conditions dictate that the leadership here acts prudently to optimally exploit this opportunity. Given the history of US administrations’ engagement with countries such as Pakistan, it is imperative for the Pakistani government to keep national interest above all and put their house in order for the so called “beginning of the end game in Afghanistan”.
The luxury of free hand-outs is not available any more. The US aid will have to move forward with a comprehensive 5-year plan as the dividend of the strategic dialogue. Anything beyond five years would be a bonus but if the civilian and military leaders can gear themselves up for the pressing challenges, they could convert the current dialogue into a real partnership even beyond five years. But for that they shall have to modify their style of governance and effectively utilise the goodwill that Pakistan currently enjoys across the globe.
Most importantly, the strategic dialogue also places the Pakistani establishment to a new and harder test. While the dialogue has rehabilitated Islamabad’s image and standing in Washington, it also offers the Pakistani establishment an opportunity to free itself from the allegedly close links with banned militant outfits. The Haqqani network, Jaish-e-Mohammad or Lashkar-e-Taiba will continue to cast shadows on the future work of the military establishment and its relations with the US.
The Pakistan army and the government will also have to watch out that other countries don’t spoil the game and throw spanners into the new Pak-US matrix. The Indian role in this context is extremely critical. Its pre-occupation with Lashkar-e-Taiba and Hafiz Saeed, and the US obsession with the Haqqani network that operates in the vicinity of North Waziristan, could work as the main stumbling blocks in the reinvigorated Pak-US relations.
Therefore, there seems no way around a firm expression of commitment, and demonstration of it, against the lethal trans-boundary fusion of radical militant groups – including that between the Haqqanis, LeT, Al-Qaida, and Jaish-e-Mohammad. One hopes that the security establishment also realises that these alliances represent a threat that transcends regions and continents, and makes it imperative for the Pakistani state to view them more critically than ever before. An iron resolve against these extremist forces will aid in silencing the critics of Pakistan’s security establishment. It will also help the country in dismantling the militant networks which have arguably become the greatest threat to the sustainability of the Pakistani state.