Wooing Washington

US-Pakistan relations in changing times

Wooing Washington
The US-Pakistan relations were historically grounded in the Cold War oriented realist understanding of international politics. The choice matrix was strategically constrained for the third world which either preferred the USSR-led communist system of politics and economy or allied with the US-guided capitalist bloc. In such a strategic context, the post-colonial state of Pakistan chose to ally with Washington on account of multiple factors, ranging from the proto-elite with ‘western’ professional and educational background to the ideological abhorrence of communism - which, according to the expanding religious elite, was anti-Islam. Thus, in a Pakistan controlled by the civil-military bureaucracy after the death of embryonic parliamentary politics in the early 1950s, the contours and discourse of Pakistan’s foreign policy was singularly determined by the former. Importantly, during this early phase, reaching out to USSR and China was least bothered probably owing to the latter’s hobnob with India that was perceived as archrival to Pakistan. Unsurprisingly, Pakistan received considerable military aid and much-needed military hardware from the US and its allies to modernize its armed forces via-a-vis India.

This continued till the 1965 war which the US did not sanction due to its strategic implications for the latter’s interests in South Asia and the Pacific. Consequently, Pakistan’s military leadership saw to other options that centered on China, whose communist party needed revenue to sustain its revolution, if not the masses. Hence, Pakistan was viewed as a medium-sized market to sell weapons. From its perspective, Pakistan was pleased to have found an alternate source of weapons procurement. The Soviet Union also marked its imprint in the county by investing in infrastructural development. However, this emerging relationship ended in failure when Islamabad started playing a bridge role between China and the US. Remember, those were the days when Beijing and Moscow distrusted each other and cross-border skirmishes were a norm in the late 1960s.
The Pakistani military has to play a decisive role

Bipolarity reigned supreme when Pakistan opted to use military means in East Pakistan. Under the cooperative framework of the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation, signed in August 1971, India had no doubts in terms of internationalization of the Bengali case whereas Pakistan invoked the security provision of SEATO and CENTO. None came to prevent the breakup of the Pakistani state. The US strategically signaled India not to attack the remaining Pakistan though. The post-partition Pakistan under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto tilted more in favor of the People’s Republic of China than the United States of America. Hence, Islamabad was no longer member of SEATO and CENTO. Rather, the county was at the forefront of the regional trend of Islamization of foreign policy. This, importantly, was also a time when, in the combined context of the 1971 debacle and the 1974 nuclear test by India, the Bhutto government – in strategic understanding with the army – decided to go nuclear, quite contrary to the US’ policy on nuclearization.

Nevertheless, Islamabad did not altogether disengage Washington diplomatically and militarily. Such an interaction got intensified when the military led by General Ziaul Haq nodded to fight along with the US against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Resultantly, more western military aid and hardware became part of the arsenal that had a considerable chunk from China. All went well from the US and Rawalpindi perspectives till the late 1980s, when the USSR and the US agreed to negotiate terms of disengagement from Afghanistan. At such a critical juncture of the final phase of the Cold War, Pakistani political and military leadership diverged, owing to imbalanced civil-military relations, over policy making and operationalization.  Far from comprehending the reconceptualization of the Cold War in general and the ‘New World Order’ in particular, Pakistan’s top army man, Gen Zia, dismissed the façade of civil government. Interestingly, Zia could not live another day and died in an air crash along with the American ambassador to Pakistan.

Although this event did not derail the US-Pakistan relations, it did, however, watershed the future course of relations in a world order that was no longer predicated on realism, but was rather dominated by neo-realist conception of international politics and economy. Little wonder then, the 1990s saw the invocation of Pressler Amendment for example, that called for annual accountability of Pakistan’s designs for making nuclear weapons. Moreover, being engulfed with severe economic issues – and with a very limited tax base – Pakistan had little choice other than approaching international donors such as the World Bank, IMF and Paris Club to help finance the country in the absence of any direct mechanism of military aid.

Importantly, the 1990s was the period when the US, hitherto having non-cordial relations with India, started exploring the country for a variety of reasons and vice versa. Pakistan remained unable to extend a hand of cordiality towards Russia. We were more focused on building our bilateral and strategic relationship with Beijing. However, before the US and Pakistan could walk poles apart after the 1998 nuclear test and the 1999 martial law, the neighboring Afghanistan once again provided an opportunity to the two countries to become allies in the global war on terror. The talk of Pakistan’s nuclear capability died down for the time being and Pakistan under Musharraf received massive military aid and relatively modern weaponry.

In principle, China and Russia had little reservations on the aid for countering terrorism. The US did urge Pakistan to ‘do more’ against its so called ‘strategic assets’ – the numerous militant organizations that Pakistan had, in the past, utilized for force multiplication. Owing to global, and later domestic, concerns, the Pakistani state chose to use military means against certain ‘non-state’ actors in South and North Waziristan, and other parts of the country.

But in the wake of a US troop drawdown, there is a new surge in Taliban insurgency in and around Afghanistan. Kunduz is a case in point. The Afghan National Unity government led by President Ashraf Ghani has been put literally on trial. If the Afghan government does not negotiate terms of reference with the Taliban and Co, there is a high probability that militancy will increase. And, if rational choice theory is a guide, if all the stakeholders are taken on board in terms of power sharing and resource redistribution, there is a strong likelihood of them preferring peace to conflict. The Afghanistan situation came under discussion during the Pakistani prime minister’s visit to the US this month.

Conceptually, the two states agreed to fight terrorism and bring stability to Afghanistan and South Asia, but operationally, the Pakistani military has to play a decisive role. Given Pakistan’s chequered civil-military history, whatever PM Sharif had committed to the Obama Administration needs the military’s consent. If there is a disagreement, it will probably necessitate a visit by General Raheel Sharif, who had already visited Russia this year, to the United States sooner or later.

The US-Pakistan relations stand at a critical juncture in a world which, by and large, comfortably buys a neo-liberal view of international relations. The existing and emerging powers such as China and Brazil have learned to build cooperative frameworks grounded in economic, not necessarily strategic or military, regionalism. Thus, the US-China annual trade volume, or China-India bilateral trade, should not be ignored.

Pakistan should build economic relations with China and Russia, but should not disengage with the US in these changing times.

The writer is a political scientist by training and professor by profession. He is a DAAD fellow, and the author of Military Agency, Politics and the State in Pakistan.

Twitter: @ejazbhatty

The writer has a PhD in civil-military relations from Heidelberg University. He is DAAD, FDDI and Fulbright fellow and teaches at the Lahore School of Economics. He can be reached on Twitter @ejazbhatty