Bilateral back and forth

Pakistan-US transactional relations osscillate but will Pakistan understand what it needs to change now?

Bilateral back and forth
I wrote last time about Pakistan-US diplomatic relations, as I viewed them through the prism of the US economic and military assistance programs. This was a wavy prism indeed, as the assistance levels have gone up and down like a roller coaster. As I tried to point out, Pakistan-US bilateral relations seen through this wavy prism can still be explained in transactional terms. In the periods of high, or relatively high resource transfers, Pakistan was regarded as an ally helping the US in its geostrategic aims. In the low periods, while still an ally, it was seen as not helping with those aims (perhaps even working against them given its nuclear weapon development programs).

In the late 1990s, when I was there, levels were, I suppose, at an all-time low, during the period when Pakistan was subject first to the sanctions of the Pressler Amendment, and later from additional sanctions brought on by the nuclear tests of May 1998. US assistance programs had all but disappeared, except for a few that came through other budgets than the Foreign Assistance Act. There wasn’t much left to cut by the time the coup of October 1999 took place, which could have triggered cuts under provisions of the Foreign Assistance Act that forbid assistance to governments that have arrived in place from military coups. Doing normal diplomatic business in Pakistan became for the US much more dependent on personal relationships than any leverage assistance programs could render.

It was after those nuclear sanctions began to bite that Pakistan came close to insolvency and was “bailed out”—not for the first or the last time—by the intercession of the IMF and the World Bank, the first providing what was misleadingly labelled “balance of payments support,” the latter giving structural economic support, enabling the country to meets its external obligations. Of course, those interventions by the international finance institutions could not have happened without the support of the US and other Western countries. As I mentioned, while sanctions designed to persuade Pakistan not to follow certain policies, i.e. nuclear weaponry, went unrewarded in bilateral programs, the West had no intention of risking a bankrupt Pakistani state sliding into failure.

In retrospect, many economists wonder if those “bailouts” were wise. They are likely to have strengthened the belief among Pakistani policymakers of all stripes and parties, that the West regards Pakistan as too “geostrategically important” to fail. This can be likened to the feeling in Western governments during the 2008 global financial meltdown that some big banks were “too big to fail,” as it would have risked a cascading failure of the global financial system. The resulting “bailout” of most of those banks paid off in the end as the US government has gotten its money back. (The US government decided, I suspect, to make an example of the Lehman Brothers, and let it fail in order that major US banks would not consider themselves sacrosanct.) Some economists argue that unless the political parties of Pakistan finally face the question of resource mobilization without IMF/World Bank bailout options available, they will never face up to the need to fix the tax/revenue system. But given their history so far, it is a risky option for the international community to consider.

But bilateral relations are a multi-layered, interrelated process, which concern, and are at times, driven by events affecting other parts of government. Ahmed Rashid’s excellent review in the latest edition of the New York Review of Books reminds me of this. The book he is reviewing is Seymour Hersh’s latest exposé on the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011. The review is a good read, and I agree completely with its conclusions. But, apart from his conclusions, Ahmed’s review reminded me that sometimes relations between the deep units of the two “deep states” have driven Pakistan-US bilateral relations.

The period of about late 2010 to mid-2012, during which the bin Laden raid occurred, is a case in point. Though it was not the bin Laden raid per se that caused this, I suspect that in this period the relations between the ISI and the CIA, never great, were as bad as they could be, and drove overall bilateral relations to new lows, probably to what we would term non-transactional, or in fact dysfunctional. It started when the name of the CIA station chief was leaked to the Pakistani press, and he had to be moved out of the country because of death threats. Then came the Raymond Davis case (no need for details here; everyone will remember them).

When the US finally apologized for the Davis case, and a way was found to resolve the matter legally so Davis could be removed from the country, the case morphed into the ISI accusation that the CIA had brought several hundred agents into Pakistan “illegally” (whatever that would mean in a fight between deep state units) and the government cut off all visas for US officials (legitimate as well as illegitimate). Just when the Davis problem was resolved, and one would have thought that relations could get back to a more harmonious level, drone strikes, which seemed to have been on hold, were started again and killed innocent Pakistani civilians. And to top off a real bad year, when things were going quiet again, in November 2011, 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed in “friendly fire,” and/or the “fog of war,” certainly not intentionally, by NATO soldiers from across the Afghan border, and the Pakistan Army Chief shut down the roads through Pakistan by which the US supplied its troops in Afghanistan until mid-2012. If ever there was a definition of a non-transactional relationship, this period was it.

Other issues feed into the bilateral relationship. Most probably start with the Indo-centricity (perhaps Indophobia is a better term) of Pakistani policy, an issue I have written about many times, and which I continue to think is key to reformation and ultimate success of Pakistan as a state. (I do not have space to explain the issue here.) Probably it goes back to the Pakistani fear of encirclement—hostile India, hostile Afghanistan, (perhaps) hostile Iran.

So a Pakistan, enthralled by Indo-centricity, cannot give up its cozy relationship with the Haqqani network despite the fierce Haqqani opposition to a peace process in Afghanistan and their continued attacks on foreigners in Afghanistan. This is an enormous thorn in the side of the Pakistan-US relationship, and the cuts in US assistance programs to Pakistan, if you asked the US Congress, would probably relate mostly to that issue.

Pakistan’s failure to respond to Afghan President Ghani’s attempts to bring the Afghan/Pakistan relationship closer is probably because of its relationship with the Haqqanis and its unwillingness to give it up or risk losing it up by squeezing them hard on the peace process. Rebuffed by the Pakistanis, Ghani is reaching out to India. This, if anything, hardens Pakistan’s desire to keep the Haqqanis close. The chances for a political solution in Afghanistan dwindle away. And as they dwindle, so actually do the chances that Pakistan will not be mostly encircled by enemies: a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, and India. And without a peace process to hold onto, the choices for the US would become a military victory, which no one now thinks possible, or to abandon the Afghans to their fate. Given these realities, I do not see the Pakistan-US relationship getting much better until something changes the Pakistani outlook.

William Bryant Milam is Senior Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He was Ambassador to Pakistan from 1998 to 2001  

The writer is a former career diplomat who, among other positions, was ambassador to Bangladesh and to Pakistan.