The damage is done

It may be too late for Pakistan to hire lobbyists in Washington

The damage is done
Relations between Pakistan and the United States have historically been a roller coaster ride, but the whole affair seems to have lately become more rickety and rough than the earlier phase.

The row – sparked by the Congress, which scuttled the F-16 fighter sale deal, and the killing of Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor in last month’s drone attack – has ushered in a new low in bilateral ties, which might be well here to stay at least till the new administration takes charge in Washington.

This was evident during last week’s visit by the US delegation comprising Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Amb Richard Olson, Director for Afghanistan and Pakistan at National Security Council Dr Peter Lavoy and top US/NATO Commander in Afghanistan Gen John Nicholson. The delegation’s discussions at the Foreign Office and GHQ were characterized as “candid and frank”, but yielded little in terms of finding the way out of the bad patch in the relationship. The trip was, nevertheless, symbolic in terms of signaling US commitment to remaining engaged with Pakistan despite the difficulties.

It was not difficult to read the sub-text of the two almost identical statements issued by the Foreign Office and ISPR after the visiting delegation’s two meetings, which rejected the demand for action against Afghan insurgents’ sanctuaries in Pakistan and linked it to border management, repatriation of three million Afghan refugees, and action against TTP sanctuaries on Afghan soil. The Americans, according to a source, were categorically told in the meetings that Pakistan would not start a new war by taking on Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network.
Obama has lost hope he can settle Afghanistan

The path out of the crossroads, where the relationship stands now, may not only be difficult to discover, but also tougher one to trek, since there is now virtually a bipartisan consensus emerging in the US that Pakistan has been a duplicitous and dangerous partner, which did not eliminate the Haqqani network, Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba bases from its soil despite having received over $30 billion in aid since 9/11. On the other hand, there is a deepening perception in Pakistan that Washington continues to be indifferent to its security needs and is propping up its archrival India. The assumption that a major Pakistan-US rupture would not happen as both remain indispensable for each other’s interest may not be exactly valid any more. The two may not completely break-off, but the relations would steadily turn cold.

Adviser on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz captured the essence of the feeling in Islamabad by observing that there was “a definite non-convergence of interests” between Pakistan and the US. He was testifying before a combined meeting of the Senate committees on foreign affairs and defense. The mood in the US Congress, which has been shaped by the narrative provided by the administration, is no less harsh, with one Congressman likening Pakistan to ‘Benedict Arnold’ – the infamous American traitor – and others criticizing their own government for incentivizing Pakistan’s duplicity by giving money and arms.

It is a fact that the negative developments in Pakistan-US ties are linked to the evolving global and regional scenario, but it would not be wise to ignore the mistakes of Pakistani civilian and military authorities that led the country to this juncture.

A senior official, who has remained part of the bilateral dialogue over the past couple of years, candidly admitted in a background discussion that the Pakistani mistake was to create unrealistic expectations, which have now transformed into frustration on the American side. This, he believed, was exploited by the Indians and Afghans to widen the misunderstandings between Pakistan and the United States.

But there is no dearth of those who tend to simplify the situation by obfuscating ground realities.

Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry, in his verbal statement before the joint sitting of the two Senate committees, said all was going well. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s White House trip had yielded a comprehensive statement and there was an appreciation of Pakistani efforts when Pakistan hosted the Heart of Asia ministerial meeting in December, he said, but all of a sudden things turned bad this year. Surprisingly, no one at the meeting reminded him that reservations about Pakistani security agencies’ inaction against Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network sanctuaries were not new and have regularly featured in US-Pakistan dialogues since Zarb-e-Azb began. Last year, the US Congress deducted $350 million from the Coalition Support Fund reimbursement for Pakistan because the US defense secretary did not certify that action was taken against the Haqqanis and the Taliban.

One possible reason why US took off the gloves now is that the Obama administration has lost hope in settling Afghanistan before it leaves office. Vibes from Washington are that it would increasingly leverage its military assistance and get tougher with Islamabad on the issue of terrorist sanctuaries.

It may probably be too late for the Pakistani government to consider hiring lobbyists on Afghanistan. The damage has already been done. More importantly, image building and improvement in ties with the Congress – the two objectives stated by Aziz for hiring lobbyist firms – may not be easy to achieve unless course correction happens here in Islamabad, and we stop thinking it is in US interest that Pakistan and Afghanistan stop becoming safe havens for global terrorists.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad