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A Fair Weather Friend

Robert Gates, the much celebrated US Secretary of Defence at the helm during the infamous Abottabad raid, in his recently published memoir divulges, with a sprinkle of perhaps deliberate and condescending naiveté, that he ‘never considered Pakistan an ally’. How enlightening indeed.

As he elaborates in detail his various encounters with the Pakistani military and government officials, one cannot help but notice him being deeply mired in the typical altruistic babble uniquely characterised by his fellow countrymen. However, I hate to break it him, in case he failed to notice during his much touted long public career in the US defence and intelligence establishments, that Pakistan and Pakistanis have also never considered his country their ally too. I wonder if that perspective held any significance for him.

Pakistan has always been an unavoidable maleficent in the eyes of short-attention-span Americans. An unwanted ally. Corrupt, utterly unreliable and always clamouring for the hard earned US tax payer dollars. This general feeling of loathing has been pervasive in the American discourse with Pakistan, particularly since 9/11.

After 9/11, when suddenly Pakistan again became visible to the Americans, at first there was a sense of restitution among American policy makers that Pakistan was perhaps unfairly ignored following the US disengagement from the region after the first Afghan War. As the eyes of the world focused towards Pakistan, ‘never again’ was the pledge fervently made by the rows of Western heads of state lining up to personally reiterate the message to the beleaguered Pakistani people. Mouth watering prospects of free flowing aid, armaments and re-admittance to the global political arena, being denied at the time due to the 1998 atomic sabre rattling with India and 1999 military coup, coupled with a bit of cajoling, proved enough for the Musharraf junta. There was a strong sense of déjà vu in the military establishment in Pakistan. It was 1979 all over again.

Eventually this rapprochement proved remarkably transient. Soon the cries of ‘do more’ emanating from Washington began to shadow the discourse between both countries.

 A lot has been said about the acute lack of trust between the two allies. What engenders this mistrust is the game of real politik in the Bismarckian sense, the relentless pursuit of one’s national interests with utter disregard to the other’s. In this regard I have no qualms to accuse both countries to harbour their favourite band of terrorists. While Pakistan has been accused of harbouring and cultivating the likes of Haqqani group and Mullah Omer, US cannot be left completely off the hook on this count.

TTP, though equally venomous as their Afghan counterparts, seems to have been incongruously spared the US war on terror. TTP elements have long found safe heavens in Afghanistan, particularly in the Kunar, Khost and Nuristan provinces, the later said to be Mullah Fazlullah’s base in Afghanistan. From these sanctuaries TTP has infiltrated and frequently attacked Pakistani border check posts. In fact TTP has been enjoying unhindered flow of armaments and supplies from across the Durand Line, right under the nose of the Americans. With its vast network of spies and assets in the tribal regions of Pakistan it is difficult to fathom that US doesn’t know about the goings on.

The killing of the TTP supremo Hakimullah Mehsud, though came about in a US drone strike, happened in dubious circumstances to say the least. But if compared, with the intense pressure US applied on Pakistan to quell Lashkar-e-Tayiba, especially in the wake of Mumbai attacks, the aloofness which generally characterises US attitude towards TTP, which causes a myriad of existential threats to her “major Non-NATO ally”, Pakistan, has been the most puzzling aspect of US involvement in the region.

Here I cannot resist but think of the famous Son of a B**** remark made by US President Franklin Roosevelt about the then President of Nicaragua Anastasio Samoza (he is a SoB; but he is our SoB!).

The real thorn, however, in the side of US-Pakistan relationship is Pakistan’s tolerance and sheltering of Afghan militant elements. Though it is bad policy, in my view, to pin our hopes on Mullah Omer’s Taliban and the Haqqani Network for the Afghan future; nevertheless, there is a sound rationale behind Pakistan’s policy to keep the Afghan Taliban engaged. In today’s Afghan political landscape there is hardly a faction which Pakistan can see as a reliable future partner. Afghanistan is extremely crucial for Pakistan’s future and stability. Simultaneously, any long lasting peace in Afghanistan is impossible without Pakistan’s active involvement. Yet instead of appreciating Pakistan’s legitimate concerns and incorporating her in decision making regarding post 2014 Afghanistan, Pakistan has been incongruously sidelined by the US.

Over the years the phrase “double standards” and US foreign policy have come to be used so much in tandem that it’s hard not to think of the other, when employing one of them. This hallmark attribute, of the way America engages with the world, is all too visible in their engagement with the Sub-Continent politics. In the face of an overpowering China and an unruly Pakistan, India has become America’s blue eyed ally. True to its real politik-always, Pakistan is being compelled by US to forget its national interests and comply with the fact that India is the new bully in the yard.

Pakistan and India have a history. However, Pakistan’s mistrust of India has been ridiculed by US and her apologists, terming it to be outmoded, unrealistic and contrary to the strategic realities of Pakistan and the region. The gravest of Pakistan’s strategic challenges emanate from our relationship with India and the ones which don’t, end up being exploited by India in one way or the other. India’s involvement in aiding and facilitating various terrorist insurgencies across Pakistan is an open secret. Even the current US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel, in a pre-pentagon-days candid remark, accused India of fighting a proxy war on Pakistan’s Western border.

Pakistanis are a simpleton bunch. The vagaries of US policies and intentions have always been puzzling for us. They make us suspicious and have given rise to the near universal belief in presuming an invisible American hand behind every ill there is. To be not completely unfair to the Pakistanis, the Americans have also done nothing to dispel this image. The typical hubris of aid-giving benefactor, which harkens to the colonial traditions, is what shapes US demeanour towards Pakistan. The frustrations shown by US decision makers like Robert Gates, and even President Obama, are indicative of this dismissive attitude. The recent congressional directive to withhold $33 million in aid as a punishment to avenge the incarceration of Dr. Shakeel Afridi further proves the point.

However, beggars, they say, can’t be choosers. As a country, beset with precarious economic fortunes throughout her history, we seem to be constantly in assistance-asking mode. There are fewer countries who have been as avid customers of IMF as Pakistan has been. In a 2012 study UN found Pakistan to be the third largest recipient of international aid during the 1951-2010 period, and America has been one of the biggest contributor with nearly $ 70 billion (in constant 2011 dollars) contributed from 1951 up till now. However, a closer study of the history of US aid to Pakistan reveals that US has always used aid, whether military or economic, solely to achieve its own objectives and not in the love of Pakistani people.

US aid to Pakistan first increased manifold following the signing of the Mutual Defence Treaty in 1954 aiming to enhance defence co-operation between the two nations, which was later cemented and broadened with Pakistan joining CENTO in 1954 and SEATO (a.k.a. the Baghdad Pact) in 1955. This honeymoon period continued until mid 1960s when President Ayub started making overtures to the Soviets. Following the 1965 war aid was significantly reduced.

Later, in 1979 when Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the realisation that how indispensible and useful Pakistan was to that conflict impelled the Americans to conveniently forget all the restrictions imposed by the Carter administration in response to Pakistan’s nascent nuclear programme. 1980s was the decade long honeymoon. Aid flowed, particularly military aid, unhindered throughout the decade. However, after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan when Pakistan had served its purpose, the ghost of nuclear programme was resuscitated and all aid was cut. Even sanctions were imposed via the notorious Pressler Amendment. These sanctions were made harsher after the 1998 nuclear spat with India and the 1999 coup d’état.

Then, two years later some zealots decided to highjack a couple of planes and ram them into some buildings in the American heartland and we all know what happened next. To cut the story short, aid started to flow again.

However, Pakistanis shouldn’t let themselves be burdened under the weight of American benevolence. The aid US has been giving to Pakistan has proved far more cost effective for them as compared to their costs to finance other recent conflicts. A Brown University project, Cost of War, calculated the combined costs of post-9/11 wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan to be put at $ 3.1 trillion till 2013. However, out of this mind boggling amount merely $ 28 billion has been given to Pakistan so far, in both military and non-military aid. Notwithstanding this, Pakistan’s own financial expenditures and costs to its economy for being the US ally in this war has been far more than that; currently estimated to be at least $ 50 billion. These numbers become even more appalling considering that, according to the aforementioned report, the loss of civilian lives in Pakistan has been far higher than in Afghanistan.

Yet the Americans wonder, why the Pakistanis hate them so much? For a nation which has proven to be remarkably oblivious to draw lessons from judgements of history, it is perhaps still beyond comprehension that the true battle for hearts and minds cannot be won with staged photo ops, propagandist media campaigns and superfluous promises of aid. If the Americans earnestly desire to win both the hearts and the minds of Pakistani people then they will have to talk the talk and walk the walk.

Pakistan’s failure is that we have not been able to adopt a posture, formulate a narrative, craft a clearer strategic doctrine which could have impelled US to appreciate and acquiesce to our interests. Diplomacy is the art of the possible. With right strategy we could have forced US to respect our concerns and objectives. However, due to our overly defensive and narrow outlook we have squandered our chances.

In the post-Afghan-conflict world when US attentions in Asia will be consumed more by their burgeoning need to counter China, Pakistan can look forward to take a sigh of relief. In a reversal of roles from the cold war days, when Pakistan seemed too eager to take one side or the other, it will perhaps be more beneficial to take a non-aligned stance and let its people focus on improving their lives.

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