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Panetta and after

Islamabad and Washington need to find a middle-ground without
confrontation and coercion to put wilting bilateral ties back on track

By Imtiaz Gul

 The News, July 01, 2012

“Too much Panetta has spoiled the air,” remarked a senior American diplomat recently. This has left us little room for setting things back, he said, visibly anguished for having been caught between Pakistani demands for apology over the November 26 Salala incident and the reticence of the sole superpower. The diplomat agreed that “geo-politics” of the United States puts limitations to what individuals can do to improve relations.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s repeated insinuating statements in New Delhi and Kabul (we have run out of patience with Pakistan) constituted the context for American diplomat’s frustration with the deadlock in bilateral relations. It was also reflected in the mood within the American Congress, where various angry Congressmen introduced several bills in the last six months or so to “set Pakistan right” i.e. the bills touting the right to self-determination for the people of Balochistan, US citizenship for the CIA spy Dr Shakil Afridi, and moves to block all military and civilian assistance to Pakistan with ever more strings attached to them.

The American diplomat in Islamabad was not the lone American voice of discomfort. Almost around the same time, former presidential candidate, Senator John McCain also spoke out and accused the Obama administration of needlessly damaging the US relationship with Pakistan and “antagonising the Pakistanis” with an “in your face attitude.To further antagonise Pakistan unnecessarily is not something I would particularly think is appropriate,” McCain said in an interview with an American TV channel (reported by Online news agency, June 15, 2012).

McCain, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that the administration’s encouragement of India taking a more active role in Afghanistan while simultaneously criticising Pakistan could be a recipe for disaster.

“I would have nurtured this relationship with India sort of the way we have been for years, rather than sort of antagonising the Pakistanis even more with this kind of in your face attitude,” he said.

McCain made these comments in response to what Leon Panetta said in Kabul a few days ago; “we are reaching the limits of our patience with Pakistan, which provides “safe haven” for the Haqqani network and other groups that launch attacks on US forces.”

Only a day earlier, Panetta had made disparaging remarks on Islamabad to the extreme displeasure of most Pakistanis.

Criticism of the Obama administration’s way to handle Pakistan also resonated in a recent New York Times/International Herald Tribune op-ed that Steve Cohen of the Brookings Institute and Moeed Yusuf, South Asia adviser at the US Institute of Peace, penned jointly.

“Unfortunately, the proposed remedy (to deal with Pakistan) is as misplaced as was past support for Pakistan’s military dictators, which came at the cost of the country’s democratic evolution. Those who would force changes by playing a divide-and-rule game grossly exaggerate America’s capacity to influence Pakistani politics,” the authors stated.

In the carefully crafted and insightful analysis, both Cohen and Yusuf advise against exploiting the existing civil-military divides because its unintended consequence could be the strengthening of the right-wing rhetoric in Pakistan and greater space for security-centric policies.

“….any US conceptualisation of Pakistan as two Pakistans — that is, a neat division between civilian and military elites — is false and will not resonate among Pakistanis. It is wrong to assume that a majority of Pakistanis would support a US policy so obviously driven to undercut the military, although there is widespread hope — even within the army — that the Pakistani political system will produce more competent politicians…”

Warning that the Pakistani military’s reaction to “a two-Pakistans approach would, more than likely, cost the United States the all-important intelligence cooperation needed to tackle global terrorist threats emanating from Pakistan,” Cohen and Yusuf underline that “We must patiently try to turn Pakistan from an ally that is no friend into a state that seeks normal relations with America and its neighbours. Short cuts are unlikely to work.”

This advice, regardless of whether taken in by those who matter within the Obama administration, comes at an extremely crucial juncture. Most of the Congress and the American public opinion look down on Pakistan primarily because of the perceptions built around its policies by the American administration and the media.

US geo-political considerations apart, Pakistan has its failings and follies to blame too; President Zardari’s participation in the Chicago summit (May 21-22) without any deal on the resumption of ground lines of communications (GLOCs) served only to invite scorn by all and sundry because the rationale behind the last-minute invitation to him was the presumption that the deal is done. This was both embarrassing as well as humiliating for Zardari and entailed even greater condemnation of the country.

This was shot in the foot and the entire top leadership is responsible for discrediting the country, particularly within the US-Nato nations. Almost every one of them billed Pakistan short of being cheats, indecisive and complicit in the violence in Afghanistan. So, the president’s presence in Chicago (without a deal on supplies and the settlement of the apology issue) was a slap in the face of all those who thought participation in such an international forum is good any way.

What good, we fail to understand because the results were on the contrary.

That’s why the relations remain hostage to the ego and arrogance of a super power driven by its global geo-political agenda on the one hand, and a discordant indecisive Pakistan, which seems unable to break out of the cold-war mindset, and apparently lacks the vision required to reset its strategic paradigm which has entailed unimaginable economic attrition than tangible benefits. Both the countries need to find a middle-ground without confrontation and coercion. But greater onus rests on Pakistan, a country gradually wilting under the consequences of the skewed policies it has pursued so far.

The writer is executive director of the Centre for Research and Security Studies

 

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk