The South Asia Channel

Pakistan's new player

The Pakistan parliament has now completed its action on a resolution defining the terms of reference for future Pakistan-U.S. relations, adopting it without formal dissent. Action now passes to the Pakistani cabinet, which must formally initiate discussions with the United States. All eyes will be on how the U.S. and Pakistani governments negotiate the actual working of this troubled relationship. The parliament's central role in this process also tells us about some things that have changed - and some that have not - in the way Pakistan's government institutions work, both internally and with the United States. Both countries should take this opportunity to revise their well-practiced negotiating tactics, which have become a recipe for failure.

The parliamentary resolution laid down guidelines for Pakistan's negotiators. Its most important points were predictable. It provided for resumption of ground shipment of supplies other than arms and ammunition for NATO and coalition forces in Afghanistan, at a higher price. It also demanded an immediate cessation of U.S. drone strikes or "hot pursuit" by U.S. forces into Pakistan; directed the government to seek an unconditional apology for last November's attack by NATO forces on a Pakistani border post at Salala; and rejected past or future verbal or implicit agreements between Pakistan and the United States. It concluded that the "footprint" of the United States in Pakistan needed to get smaller. It also threw in one curveball - a demand that Pakistan seek a civilian nuclear accord with the United States matching India's - and apparently rejected a second one, the release of Dr. Afia Siddiqui, currently serving an 86 year sentence in the United States for assault with intent to kill U.S. officials trying to question her. The context for all these recommendations was respect for Pakistan's sovereignty. 

The Pakistani Cabinet now needs to turn these principles into an Executive Order that, after vetting in the Law Ministry, will guide officials working out the details with the United States. Like the three-week parliamentary deliberations, implementation is likely to be slower than anticipated. The resolution also specifies that all future agreements of any kind must be reviewed in detail by "all concerned" government ministries and submitted to the parliamentary committee. This uncharacteristically rule-bound process probably mirrors the legalistic approach Pakistan considers typical of American negotiators.

More importantly, the pace and content of negotiations will reflect the explosive politics in Pakistan of relations with the United States. The issues themselves are complex. Priorities have shifted during the four months since the Salala incident put relations in the deep freeze. Pakistan's civilian leaders will be reluctant to take advantage of ambiguities in the resolution in ways that might look like weakening of resolve. They will be concerned that another downward swoop on the U.S.-Pakistan roller coaster could expose them to public outrage. The resolution's directive that the government put all U.S.-Pakistan agreements in writing will shine an unwelcome spotlight on how the two governments address their most sensitive military and intelligence issues. Take drone attacks. To the United States, they are uniquely useful for reducing the terrorist threat, and some of them have been welcomed by - and quietly coordinated with - the Pakistani leadership, both civilian and military. But as we know from Wikileaks, this coordination flew in the face of what Pakistan's leaders had told their own public.

The most unusual feature of this "reset" of U.S.-Pakistan relations was the central role of parliament. This was intended to provide broad political cover for the resumption of more normal and better defined ties between the two troubled partners. It was probably also designed, at least by some participants in the process, to reduce the government's negotiating leeway. The army, which was a party to the agreement setting up the parliamentary committee, almost certainly did not see this process as supplanting in any way its own decisive voice on issues connected to Pakistan's security. In the army's eyes, national security includes relations with the key countries: India, Afghanistan, China and the United States.

The results of the committee's work suggest that the army's role is still intact. Senior representatives of the army and the government met about a week before the committee started work, and agreed on a set of recommendations to the committee. As is normal in Pakistan, all of these recommendations apparently found a home in the final report. In the week or so before the committee concluded, there were indications that the army was becoming impatient with the slow pace of its work, and this was apparently communicated more directly to the committee.

But some of the issues that made their way into the committee's discussions provide a useful reminder that the army, even in concert with civilian political leadership, cannot always control the processes it starts. Even after the end of the parliamentary process, on April 16, a statement by Hafiz Saeed, leader of the Lashkar-e-Taiba and now the object of a special reward offer of $10 million from the U.S. Justice Department, charged that any resumption of NATO ground shipments to Afghanistan would be "treasonous." He was speaking in the name of the Defense of Pakistan Council, whose members - some 30 militant groups as well as most of Pakistan's religiously oriented political parties - threatened to stop any such shipments "with force." The council is widely believed to have discreet connections with the army.

It is clear that if the army wants to take a hard line, an engaged parliament and an energized and anti-American public will provide it support. But the army's prestige has taken a hit in the past year, and that will constrain its ability to shape policy in other directions. If the army wants to preserve the flexibility it has traditionally enjoyed in shaping its privileged ties with the United States, it will have more trouble doing this behind the scenes than it is accustomed to. It will need to show its hand, and incur a measure of political criticism in the process.

How should the two governments now proceed? Their traditional operating styles are likely to set them up for failure. We described in a recent book, How Pakistan Negotiates with the United States: Riding the Roller Coaster, the way Pakistani leaders and negotiators often worked to create in their American counterparts a sense of obligation toward Pakistan. They wanted U.S. officials to feel that they had to compensate for having let Pakistan down. Pakistan's leaders also relied heavily on the conviction that the United States needed Pakistan more than the reverse, and that Pakistan could and should therefore play hardball.

This approach has often served Pakistan's purposes well. Under today's circumstances, however, Pakistani hardball will feed into a high level of anger and frustration in Washington, and could lead to a breakdown in relations that neither side wants.  After the revelation of Osama bin Laden's long stay in Pakistan and the "deep freeze" of the last few months, U.S. officials are more aware than ever of the differences between U.S. and Pakistani goals in Afghanistan, and are unenthusiastic about making special accommodations. Moreover, in the past four months, the United States has found partial substitutes for ground transit through Pakistan. Resumption of the ground links is certainly desirable for the U.S., but may no longer be a trump card in Pakistan's hand. The traditional U.S. negotiating approach - offering a broad strategic relationship accompanied by generous aid, and stressing Pakistan's indispensability to U.S. policy - is out of step with U.S. fiscal realities and with the mood of key U.S. officials. Moreover, it is not credible to Pakistan. It is likely to encourage Pakistan to fall back on what one of our Pakistani friends referred to as "the victimization card."

The key to a better outcome is to focus on goals both sides know they genuinely share. This starts with more realistic mutual expectations and a better definition of the security issues on which they can cooperate.  The United States wants to see a peaceful region and a more prosperous Pakistani economy. Pakistan wants the U.S. departure from Afghanistan to be orderly, and to leave behind a reasonably stable and governable Afghanistan. The negotiators' task is to identify and obtain the minimum requirements that serve these common goals, even if they fall well short of the robust strategic partnership both countries once aimed at. 

Teresita and Howard Schaffer are retired U.S. diplomats who served in Pakistan. Teresita Schaffer is a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a senior adviser at McLarty Associates; Howard Schaffer is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. Both edit southasiahand.com, a web site devoted to South Asia.

FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images