To mark the end of the United States-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue talks last Friday, the Obama administration announced a $2 billion military aid package for Islamabad, the culmination of a negotiation process institutionalized in recent years by the two countries to broaden and strengthen their relationship. Yet skepticism about the viability and effectiveness of the process and the broader relationship continues to dog both sides.
Ironically, despite mutual suspicion, both sides are well-aware of the benefits of working together: Washington's search for an endgame in Afghanistan makes it important for both sides to work together toward a settlement that can restore a modicum of stability to the war-torn country.
Pakistan and the United States have confluences of interest in other areas as well. So, what's the problem?
From Washington's perspective, Pakistan bristles with anti-Americanism. This is despite the fact that the U.S. has helped Pakistan on several occasions, notably in the wake of the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir. It has pledged to increase economic assistance to Islamabad in recent years and is helping the latter with its flood relief efforts.
But experts in Washington believe Pakistan is working against U.S. interests by sheltering the Afghan Taliban and not doing enough to secure the NATO supply lines from Pakistani ports and supply depots across the border. Recently, CNN quoted an unnamed NATO official in Afghanistan as saying that Osama bin Laden and his cohort were out of the caves and enjoying a comfortable life in Pakistan.
All this implies that Islamabad is, at best, a frenemy of the United States. According to this thinking Pakistan is playing a double game with Washington, and there is little the United States can do to reverse this behavior.
Yet this view ignores concrete steps that can be taken to turn the U.S.-Pakistan relationship around.
Pakistan and the United States have a common interest in fighting religious militancy. While the United States today is arguably much safer than nine years ago, Pakistan continues to suffer indiscriminate terrorist violence on a daily basis. Religious extremism has also hit the economy badly and foreign investors are staying away from Pakistan. Prolonged violent extremism will only damage Pakistan further in the long run.
Secondly, Pakistan needs more than just economic assistance. Like other states, it has a national security perspective dealing with regional realities. Pakistanis think that Islamabad has put Pakistan's security at risk to protect American interests in the region. They argue that the U.S. has not done much about the Kashmir dispute or even addressed Pakistan's concerns about growing Indian influence in Afghanistan.
For its part, Pakistan needs to evaluate the cost of anti-Americanism. The sentiment has not only narrowed down the country's foreign policy options but has also pushed it toward greater international isolation. It has also generated a false hope that things will drastically improve when American forces leave the region. However, Pakistan cannot afford a new round of factional fighting in Afghanistan and another refugee influx from that country.
The Pakistani establishment must discuss these issues publicly. It must tell the people about the gains it has made by dealing with Washington and how it is likely to benefit from this relationship in the future. It is a fact that Pakistan was not always anti-American even when Pakistanis were not always in agreement with U.S. foreign policy.
Pakistan also needs to address the U.S. concern about various Afghan militant factions that are believed to be hiding in its northwestern tribal territories and parts of Baluchistan, a key sticking point between the two countries.
At the same time, Islamabad cannot fight every militant outfit at this stage. There are too many of them in the region and it makes ample sense for it to go after those groups that are primarily threatening Pakistani state and society. This should also explain why Pakistan has not taken on the Afghan Taliban. Just like the United States did not target Baitullah Mehsud, the popular leader of the Pakistani Taliban, until he openly threatened to launch attacks on the U.S. soil, Pakistanis see little reason to go after the Afghan Taliban who have not attacked their country, including the Haqqanis in North Waziristan.
It will immensely benefit the Pak-U.S. relationship, however, to wean these groups from Al Qaeda and make them renounce violence. The good news is that the international community has finally begun to understand that the Afghan problem is too complex to be resolved through use of force only. Negotiations are imperative at this stage and Pakistan can play a useful role.
The Taliban movement is deeply divided in Afghanistan. Indeed, many Taliban leaders are quite pragmatic and are likely to watch their own interest if they get a chance to enter their country's political mainstream. This is likely to reduce violence and considerably help the international community's movement toward the post-conflict stage in Afghanistan.
It is vital to offer proper political incentives to these groups and let the Afghan-led reconciliation process gain momentum in Kabul. But it would become more meaningful if Pakistan's security concerns are addressed as well.
Political progress in Kabul will benefit Pakistan-U.S. relations more than anything else. Movement toward that goal would require a continuous and transparent dialogue and the need to rescue ties from falling prey to popular emotions in both countries.Wajahat Ali is The Asia Foundation's William P. Fuller Fellow. Currently, he is working with the New America Foundation as their South Asia Research Fellow. The views expressed in this article are his own.
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