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Warning signs

The US-Pakistan ties have once again been reduced to a military-to-military engagement, while the political side has hardly any role to play

Warning signs

A couple of years before the 9/11 attacks, relations between Pakistan and the United States stood at the “repairing, rebuilding and redefining” phase. This term mentioned by Maleeha Lodhi in an old article signifies that both sides were trying to attain a normal diplomatic equilibrium. But before the process could mature at its own pace and time, the two sides had to forgo the efforts and join hands as allies to combat terrorism.

From the very beginning, Pakistani experts, academics and military alike, were skeptical of this renewed relationship. They feared that the US will abandon Pakistan once the ‘war on terror’ achieves its goals. Yet, throughout this time, Pakistan received billions of dollars in financial assistance to help capture or kill al Qaeda operatives and its splinter groups in return.

“We had no major source in USSR during the Cold War, no major source inside Iraq prior to its invasion in 2003, no major source inside North Vietnam during that long war or in North Korea during that war or now. And, of course, we had no major source inside al Qaeda before 9/11 and probably do not have even one now,” admitted former National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection and Counter-terrorism, in his book Your Government Failed You.

Because of this limited access the whole operation to dismantle and destroy al Qaeda and its supportive Taliban groups was handed over to Pakistan. To charm up Musharraf, the coalition leadership boasted every little and selective steps the general took against terrorists.

“President Musharraf has been a very strong ally. Pakistan has been a very strong ally with President Musharraf as leader,” the Bush administration official declared in 2007 along with an announcement to provide 750 million dollar aid for the development of tribal areas on the Afghan border, where al Qaeda and Taliban were presumably operating.

On the other hand, the international community demanded results and soon grew weary of General Musharraf’s ‘double dealing’. The National Security Archive of a US institute obtained and published secret documents detailing US apprehension about Islamabad’s longstanding provision of direct aid and military support to militants. The experts viewed that Pakistan’s support to Taliban and Haqqani network was not entirely suspended. The CIA estimated that al Qaeda’s higher leadership and Taliban commanders had maintained safe havens within the Pakistani territory.

The political leadership in Pakistan failed to realise that the country needs a proper foreign minister and a civilian ambassador to lead the diplomatic corps.

Ironically, the administration had assigned its lower level officials to engage with the Pakistani government. Particularly the then assistant secretary of state, Richard Boucher, became so prominent and powerful because of his direct access to General Musharraf that he was regarded as ‘Virtual Viceroy’.

This situation improved when the new administration in the US appraised the relationship status with the new government in Pakistan. The new Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, opted for an equal-positioned engagement with Pakistan. She intensified public diplomacy through her visit to Pakistan and held town hall meetings, addressed public gatherings, faced a critical media and still defended a 7.5 billion dollar civilian aid to the country.

More importantly, she confined her dealings with the political leadership only.

A strategic partnership agreement was initiated forcing the political leadership to meet and discuss cooperation in every area of interest. At least six working groups were set up to enhance bilateral relationship. These working groups included Energy, Security, Strategic Stability, Nonproliferation, Defense Consultative Group, Law Enforcement and Counterterrorism, Economics and Finance, and Education, Science and Technology.

Meanwhile, a special position was established to focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan-related issues. Seasoned diplomat, Ambassador Richard Holbrook, first headed the post.

This political engagement, however, proved short lived. The military meddling overtook political interests, and diverted cooperation in different sectors to just defense. These steps followed by the unilateral operation by the US that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad damaging the bilateral relationship severely.

The country’s refusal to take action against the Haqqani Network or other militant groups despite the active military operation in North Waziristan has also ended any hopes to put the relation back on track.

Even though Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had held two summit meetings with President Obama, and the ministerial level strategic dialogues have been taking place on determined schedule, the distrust grew further high. Resultantly, the Congress disallowed the administration to sell F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan and reduced financial aid as well.

These steps could have been taken as warning signs. But the political leadership in Pakistan failed to realise that the country needs a proper foreign minister and a civilian ambassador to lead the diplomatic corps. The government high-ups blame India for deteriorating US-Pakistan relations, or call America as a ‘selfish friend’, hoping that the wordy manipulation would somehow change the ground reality.

Interestingly, a congressional delegation’s visit to Pakistan earlier this month was also portrayed as if they were to negotiate new financial, political and defense deals. The chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, Senator John McCain, along with Senators Lindsey Graham, Benjamin Sasse and Joe Donnelly actually had planned to spend fourth of July with American troops in Afghanistan.

The Congressional leaders are not administration appointed officials so their meetings could not yield any results. Although, according to the State Department, they discussed Pak-Afghan relations and encouraged the possibility of peace talks with the Taliban.

However, several other members of the Congress have started voicing their concern against Pakistan. Many have participated in congressional hearings questioning Pakistan’s policies and priorities. Just last week more lawmakers joined in and sought additional measures against Pakistan as well. “Patience is growing very thin”, said Congressman Matt Salmon, Chairman Asia and Pacific Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Other committee members suggested that cutting down financial aid will not be enough and strict sanctions should be imposed on Pakistan.

Ranking member of the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Non-Proliferation and Trade, Congressman William Keating, alleged that Pakistan used terrorism as a tool for its strategic needs and there was no reason to believe that it would change its policies.

Even though there are people who propose that Pakistan should be declared as a state sponsor of terrorism, the administration has been taking a supportive position and claimed that it has “absolutely no intention” of diminishing the relationship.

Though there might not be another ‘Pressler Amendment’, the relationship has definitely come full circle. Pakistan is facing a hard time convincing the world that it has a foreign policy, and it is not run by the military either. It is quite evident that this time the ties have once again reduced to a military-to-military engagement, and the political side has hardly any role to play in it.

Wajid Ali Syed

Wajid Syed
The writer is Geo TV's Washington correspondent. He can be reached at [email protected]

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