When Shahid met Mike

Can Pakistan and US ever be friends-if interests do not align?

When Shahid met Mike
Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s meeting with US Vice President Michael Pence on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly session in New York has failed to narrow the wide trust deficit between the two countries that has become more pronounced since the Trump Administration announced its policy for Afghanistan and South Asia.

Many saw in the meeting that took place on the US request, an attempt to recast the relationship that appeared to be teetering on the brink of collapse. The statement, issued by the Pakistani Prime Minister’s Office, at the conclusion of the meeting, left little doubt that the interaction did not yield any breakthroughs on the major differences.

“Both sides agreed to work together to carry forward the relationship … It was agreed that the two countries would stay engaged with a constructive approach to achieve shared objectives of peace, stability and economic prosperity in the region,” the statement said.
Pakistani officials accuse the US of moving the goalposts. Islamabad may not be in a position to fully satisfy American demands, but it still should be seen as addressing the problems that have been pointed out

The very fact that the two sides had agreed to meet in New York, even as Islamabad’s re-assessment of the ties was not complete, had signaled their desire to remain engaged. In Islamabad this wish to continue the relationship was stressed both by civilian and military leaders at different forums.

The interpretation of the statement on the New York meeting was made easier by the photo-op at the start of the session, where the two stony-faced leaders posed for the ritual handshake and trotted out opening remarks that summarized their key talking points.

“We look forward to exploring the way for working more closer with Pakistan to advance security throughout the region,” Mr Pence said. Mr Abbasi, meanwhile, stressed the need for acknowledging Pakistani sacrifices and renewed a commitment to remain partners in the fight against terrorism.

In a nutshell, it was all about Afghanistan and US security-related concerns that had been articulated in President Trump’s speech at Fort Myers, where he announced the new policy. Although, the PMO statement described the atmospherics of the meeting as “cordial”, someone, who had followed the meeting, said it was very “business-like”.

The Americans have made it amply clear that it would not be business as usual in bilateral relations unless Pakistan does something big to satisfy its concerns. President Trump, who has been meeting a few leaders in the South Asian region, including Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, emphasized this much by not having one with PM Abbasi. But, at the same time, a meeting between Pence and Abbasi was set up to show that the relationship still existed, despite the troubles and bitter tone; Washington wanted to keep talking.

The relationship has suffered in recent years because of a series of issues from the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and associated problems of alleged terrorist sanctuaries on Pakistani soil to expanding strategic cooperation between India and the US and the regional role envisaged by the latter for the former, which Islamabad fears could undermine its security.

These clear problems remained unresolved at the New York meeting, even when viewed through the prism of the PMO statement, which sought to emphasize continued engagement. This outcome only underlines the actual problem that has been keeping the relationship unsettled even though at times there are brief periods of calm: strategic interests of Pakistan and US do not align.

A high-level meeting here or there will not help unless the two develop a long-term perspective on their ties, which, both sides publicly cherish as “longstanding”. There can be no sustainable and substantive progress towards resetting relations as long as both sides do not realize and acknowledge that their strategic interests in the region are out of sync with each other and from that point they make a serious effort to align them. Of course, there can be a few temporary fixes to deal with immediate and tactical issues, but nothing long term can emerge from such a configuration.

Regrettably, neither of them is there now.

Pakistani officials accuse the US of moving the goalposts. Islamabad may not be in a position to fully satisfy American demands, but it still should be seen as addressing the problems that have been pointed out. That would require some nimble-footed diplomacy, which unfortunately is not our forte. Merely denying allegations no longer suffices because our narrative lacks the credibility it needs.

Meanwhile, the American grouse is that Pakistan has been an unreliable partner that has failed to fulfill its promises. Washington tends to take a black and white view and fails to recognize the perilous security environment in which Pakistan exists. This strategy, driven by tunnel vision, has failed to work in the past and will not in future either. Expecting Pakistan to yield to pressure would be naïve of the Americans.

The quest for common ground would, therefore, not be easy.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad and can be reached at mamoonarubab@gmail.com