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Need to defuse tensions

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  • Need to defuse tensions

    TO say that Pakistan-US relations are at a low ebb may be an understatement, but to say that they are at a point of rupture would be an overstatement. The reality may lie somewhere in between.

    If it is any consolation, we have been there before, that midpoint between low ebb and rupture. When I was in Washington in the early 1990s, Pakistan was put on the watch list of state sponsors of terrorism by the outgoing Bush seniorís administration for our alleged aid and abetment of militants in Indian-administered Kashmir. We were given six months to clear our name, and at the end of it, I was called to the State Department and told that we were cleared of the suspicion, and were being taken off the watch list.
    At the embassy, we heaved a sigh of relief since being put on the list of state sponsors of terrorism would have brought a series of draconian US laws against us. The entry of Pakistanis in and out of the US, the operation of Pakistani companies, banks and commercial entities would have been severely restricted, even prohibited. PIA flights and Pakistani ships would have been disallowed from entering US airspace and territorial waters, and all military aid would have been suspended. The embassy itself might have had to close down, with an adverse fallout on the more than one million Pakistanis in the US.
    The point is that we must keep in mind what can happen if there is a real rupture in our relations. It is all very well to feel nationalistic, to invoke national pride and uphold our dignity and independence and denounce the US, but we must fully understand the cost we will have to pay for adopting this stance.
    We must realise that the US is a great power and we are a small power. In a rupture of our bilateral relations, we will stand to lose much more than the US. Here we must also disabuse ourselves of the notion that we are indispensable to the US. We can certainly make it much more difficult for America to keep operational its supply line to Isaf troops, which includes American soldiers, but it can keep them provided for, albeit at greater cost and much more difficult logistics, without access through Pakistan. Therefore, it is in our interest more than in the American interest to avoid such an eventuality.
    Secondly, the US is neither our friend nor our foe. It is a global power that pushes its own agenda to achieve its objectives and further its national interest no matter what effect it might have on others. What a smaller power should do is to avoid getting into the cross-hairs of the bigger power. Third, with regard to our region, the US is hell-bent on eliminating Al Qaeda and its allies and associates, as it has developed a mortal fear of the likelihood of attacks emanating from these sources directed against its mainland. For this reason, it seeks to dismantle, disable and destroy all terrorist groups and networks in what it calls the Af-Pak region. I suspect it will continue pursuing this objective even after its troops have largely left Afghanistan.
    Unfortunately, for the US, it has not been able to achieve its objectives even 10 years down the road. Obviously, there are limits to global power too. That explains Adm Mike Mullenís outburst against Pakistan, more specifically against the ISI, which he alleges has a strategic relationship with the so-called Haqqani network. He went on to imply that the recent terrorist attacks in Kabul were the handiwork of the Haqqani network. The threat of possible direct US action against the Haqqani militants was also held out. Mullenís vitriol may be attributed to a CIA-ISI spat that began with the Raymond Davis episode and continues to this day. But its impact is on the entire bilateral relationship between Pakistan and the US, especially when the former CIA director is the US secretary of defence. It seems to be leading to an unravelling of Pakistan-US ties.
    To arrest this unravelling, we must try to reduce the heightened tension by bringing the temperature down, which we seem to be doing. The statements of the prime minister and the foreign minister are measured responses, and the APC resolution is also unexceptionable. This has had a salutary effect in the US, as reflected in comments and pronouncements in the wake of the Mullen diatribe.
    However, the discord has not dissipated yet. For it to do so, or at least diminish, we need to make it clear to US interlocutors that we cannot take action against the Haqqani network as desired by them for a number of cogent reasons, not the least being that the militants may turn their guns against us. Moreover, even if we were to take action, the problem in Afghanistan will not disappear. So far we do not seem to have spelt this out, and have merely avoided the demand by saying that the time was not right for us to do so.
    In the long run, we should also keep in mind that the Haqqani network, or any other group or individual is not as important as Pakistanís own national interest, and we would come to grief if we do not keep our priorities right. Secondly, we must remember that in Afghanistan we cannot ensure Pakhtun representation in the power structure, no matter how hard we try. It is for the Afghans to work out their power dispensation themselves.