By Saleem A Sethi, Weekly Pulse Magazine, October 28, 2013
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is on a four-day visit to the United States. This is his first bilateral visit to that country; and also the first official visit of a Pakistani prime minister to the US in five years. Though the visit is taking place amid both an air of expectations and an environment of suspicions and misgivings, the fact is that this is a real difficult task any premier would look forward to. There is a plethora of issues and problems which the leaders of both the countries will find not only unpleasant but also difficult to resolve. But they will have to move forward nonetheless.
However, to avoid any disappoint, it will be better not expect any unambiguous official statements at the close of the visit. In all probability, the statements of both the countries’ foreign offices about the decisions and agreements reached during these four days will be as non-committal and pleasant-looking like the ones they issued at the start of this high-profile sojourn of Nawaz Sharif. It is because the mixed bag of twisted debris of the past and present is so huge that will be difficult to untangle on diplomatic tables, no matter how big they are. This ‘debris’ consists of broken trust and perceived (and sometimes real) betrayal of the past; real-life problems of the present; and how to overcome these for the sake of the future.
An over-simplified list of the issues that US President Barak Obama and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif have to address is something like this:
- Narrowing down trust deficit between the two countries.
- Normalizing relations and boosting mutual cooperation between the US and Pakistan.
- An immediate end to drone strikes inside Pakistan.
- Achieving peace in Afghanistan and ensuring a trouble-free ISAF and US forces’ drawdown from there.
- Reaching a concrete understanding about a ‘peaceful’ Afghanistan after 2014.
- Bringing an end to terrorism and terrorists’ safe heavens in Pakistan.
- Securing Pakistan’s nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists at some point in future.
- Normalization of relations between India and Pakistan in order to achieve stability in the region.
There are many other issues too. But for the time being those can be termed as, more or less, extensions of the above list. Also, there might be a difference in the priority list of both the countries or one party not even recognizing the existence of (or the right of the other party to interfere in) some of the issues. Yet, this is the likely menu on the Pak-US summit table spread at the Capitol Hill on October 23.
We often hear about the ‘trust deficit’ phenomenon whenever Pak-US relations are discussed. But what really this trust deficit is, and how has it grown so much during the past some years that today three out of four Pakistanis consider United States as an enemy state that is out to destroy their country and take its nuclear weapons away? This is a very tricky question because there are so many aspects to it which deceptively appear incomprehensible. For example, is it the handiwork of the religious lobbies and parties to convince the common people that US is an enemy in the grab of a friend? If it is, so why then they fail every time in getting popular support at elections? Then, is it the media that can be held responsible for this ‘Hate US’ wave? If yes, then why are they abused all the time on social networks; and who actually made them convinced in the first place that the biggest donor of Pakistan over the years and decades is actually its enemy number one?
One of the biggest arguments given in support of US-bashing is its perceived betrayal of Pakistan time and again. But is it really so? Are Pakistan and United States two human beings involved in some love affair? Or are they two sovereign and independent nation states? If yes, what is this ‘betrayal’ mantra then? Even an undergraduate level student of politics and international relations know that ‘states’ don’t have permanent foes and friends; they have only their national interests to safeguard all the time. Both Pakistan and the United States pursued their relationships in their own interests – or what their leaders and regimes considered self-interest. They always did it with their own free and sweet will except for one ‘only apparent’ aberration when Pakistan was asked by the US if was ‘with’ it or ‘against’ it. ‘Only apparent’ because the ruler in 2001 considered it a god sent opportunity for self-perpetuation just like his predecessor Zia – who was also saved by Afghanistan in 1979 but for altogether opposite objectives.
Then what it is that is fuelling the hate-fire against the US and how does Nawaz Sharif’s government plan to not only look at it but also to overcome it? And what does the US has in its ‘kitty’ to offer to the Pakistanis to quell their deep rooted fears? No matter how and what both the leaders discuss and decide about it in their talks, this will indeed be a difficult task for both the countries to actually achieve it on ground in the days to come.
As mentioned above topping the agenda will be also be to bring peace to Afghanistan and the issues of tackling terrorism and bringing an end to the so-called safe heavens of terrorists in tribal and settled areas of Pakistan. This is will be the real test case for the success or failure of Pakistani prime minister’s visit to US; more than that, for the future of bilateral relations between the two countries. Nawaz Sharif may find it difficult to explain to his American counterpart if both the civilian and military sides are on the same page as far as solving the Afghan puzzle is concerned; and if the top brass back home has really reached the conclusion that there are not good and bad among the terrorists.
If the premier leally wants to make a breakthrough he will have to convince the other side that his country will go after everybody who has claimed to share monopoly on violence with the state; whether if they are in tribal areas or operating somewhere deep inside the Punjab. He will have to explain his government’s policy about tackling terrorism in his country which the US and the rest of the world consider responsible for shattering peace not only inside Pakistan and Afghanistan but also a looming threat to peace and stability in the region and the world at large. From American point of view, normalization of relations with India, fears about stability in the region, use of proxies and nuclear capabilities by any or both of the two countries and anxiety about safety of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons will mainly flow from this country’s policies in future.
Besides, these core issues, public outcome about drone strikes is likely to shape the debate about Prime Minister’s visit to US after his return home. There is a general agreement among the academia that drone strikes will continue. Yes, of course. But what if Pakistan and the United States somehow reach a decision about the joint use of this remotely piloted aircraft? The idea may seem frivolous as on today (October 22), but what if the state has really reached the conclusion that internal terror threat has really become existential in nature? And that it is more important to actually save its own backyard rather than securing a fanciful strategic depth inside some other country? Really big questions, for we don’t know what is the ‘official’ policy of the state and that of Nawaz Sharif government. But the PM can convince the US to suspend drone strikes because they have become unaffordable for the US and second that it will clear the way for his government to hold negotiations with Taliban and strengthen his government’s positions to take a full-fledged military action if those talks failed. In that case the state will be able to win over the support of the people against terrorists.
The Prime Minister may find itself in the soup in the days ahead on two counts; not explaining his government policy on terrorism in detail to the people and not naming the next Chief of Army Staff before going to America. This is really astonishing that newly elected government has so far not described its policy about the most serious and dangerous issue the country is faced with. It even does not budge an inch from it stated ‘silent’ position about the negotiations drama despite serious criticism from academia, experts, neutral observers, Taliban sympathizers and ‘liberal fascists’ alike. After coming back from ‘Washington yatra’, his opponents, particularly the noisy ‘negotiations lobby’ will hurl all kind of accusations at him to prove that whatever the government now says or does is on American dictation.
There are some good indications and signs from the other side like Washington’s announcement to release $ 1.6 billion in military and economic aid to Islamabad, release of blocked $ 322 million from the Coalition Support Fund (CSF) and the State Department telling the Congress that it will spend $ 295 million in military aid to Pakistan to increase its antiterrorism capabilities. This assistance had stopped coming after relation between the two countries entered a ‘difficult phase’ in the aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s killing in Abbotabad and the Salala indecent in May and November 2011, respectively.
Realpolitik dictates that Pakistan should seek friendly relations with all the countries. It has suffered so hugely as a result of internal terrorism. It needs help in every field, especially the energy sector, now. Keeping aside the emotional and uninformed (or ideologically driven) rhetoric about relations with the west and the US, it’s in Pakistan’s interests to have good relations with all, particularly with America. It needs no elaboration that most of the weapons and other equipments in Pakistan’s armory is western, especially American-made. If we don’t want to compromise our security, we need uninterrupted supply of spares for those highly sophisticated machines. Extreme economic conditions have severely affected the energy sector that has, in turn, brought the industrial sector to a grinding halt. There is no tourism in the country and no sports or any other cultural activity to earn from. We need to break with all this. We need to re-enter the international community as a sovereign, responsible and respected nation.
Normalization of relations with the US can help us a lot. It will be helpful in improvement of our relations with other western countries too. And this cannot only help us getting rid of terrorism but can bring in investment badly needed by our country. This country’s foreign policy can’t be run on the lines dictated by Taliban and advocated by religious political parties or emotional youth, nay children, belonging to PTI.