Incredible complexity

The US-Pakistani tango is a high-stakes game and it has commenced at a juncture when the Indian government is in limbo.

The US-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue took place early this week in Washington after an interruption of three years following the American raid on Osama bin Laden’s secretive residence in Abbottabad in May 2011. These three years have been marked by much US-Pakistan discord and public acrimony. A brave attempt was made by both sides during Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit to the White House last October to put behind the bitterness of betrayal and get on with the relationship.

But such deep wounds as Abbottabad take time to heal. At best, they could be cauterized for temporary relief. Indeed, bin Laden’s ghost was present at this week’s cogitation in Washington, as is apparent from the recent US legislation to make financial aid to Pakistan $33 million conditional on Islamabad pardoning and releasing the Pakistani doctor Shakil Afridi (who secretly helped the CIA to track down the elusive al-Qaeda leader’s hideout). Whereas Pakistan sees Afridi’s collaboration with the CIA as an “act of treason”, Americans hail him as a hero. In turn, Pakistan seeks the release of lady doctor Aafia Siddiqui whom the US locked up for an 80-year jail term for allegedly firing at US soldiers. While Washington regards her as a cold-blooded murderer, she is the stuff heroism in the Pakistani folklore.

Clearly, this is much more than a war of words between two estranged partners. There is a crisis of confidence in their “spirit of cooperation”, to borrow the expression from the Pakistani foreign ministry statement condemning the US decision to link Afridi’s case to American aid. Meanwhile, hovering above is also the CIA-controlled drone mission haunting the US-Pakistan ties with President Barack Obama vaguely promising that he’d exercise greater “prudence” when Pakistani air space is violated in future and its citizens killed in missile attacks. The cup of Pakistani anger is overflowing.

The testiness in the US-Pakistani ties was apparent at the strategic dialogue. Washington tried to inject some romance in the run-up to the strategic dialogue with the US special representative for AfPak James Dobbins even penning an article in the Pakistani media affirming that the meet would be an “important opportunity to advance a comprehensive agenda of mutually beneficial initiatives” and a sign of the “firm US commitment to advancing our relationship with Pakistan.” But in the event, the strategic dialogue ended without a compass to navigate the journey ahead.

Sharif has since unilaterally ordered talks with Pakistani Taliban.

For the Obama administration, the key agenda item was the post-2014 Afghan scenario. Pakistan’s foreign and security policy advisor Sartaj Aziz said in his opening statement at the strategic dialogue meeting that the Afghan endgame provided “the overbearing and sobering background in which we are meeting to explore ways and means for transforming the post-2014 US-Pakistan transactional relationship into a strategic partnership.”

Strategic relationship

Pakistan needs to know what is there in it for its interests. To quote Aziz, “At what stage does a normal transactional relationship become strategic? Are there one or more thresholds that must be crossed before a relationship can qualify as a strategic partnership?” Interestingly, Aziz proceeded to spell out the three “important prerequisites” of a US-Pakistan strategic partnership. One, “mutual trust at all levels and among all key institutions”; two, respect for each other’s security concerns; and, three, US willingness to “convey” to India Pakistan’s “legitimate concerns” with the “same intensity” with which Washington exerts “a lot of pressure” on Pakistan over “issues of concern to India”.

Aziz dwelt on the Afghan scenario at some length to underscore that Pakistan is willing to cooperate with a “responsible and smooth drawdown” in Afghanistan and to facilitate “a continued flow of the lines of communication” as well as to “help in every possible way” the stabilisation of Afghanistan “including through a comprehensive reconciliation process” – provided, of course, Islamabad could “at the same time hope that our security concerns are comprehensively addressed.” He then summed up that a resolution of the Kashmir issue would have an all-round salutary effect on the range of issues.

To be sure, major security challenges lie ahead for India in the period ahead in its region. The US-Pakistani tango is a high-stakes game for both sides and it has commenced in right earnest at a juncture when the Indian government is in limbo and during the next 3-4 months at the very least, a new political order will be struggling to be born on the Raisina hills.

India’s politics is in disarray at a time when Delhi needs to connect the various dots and come up with a policy matrix of incredible complexity involving several interlocking templates – security situation within Afghanistan; evolving US regional priorities toward Afghanistan, Pakistan and India to optimise its ‘pivot to Asia’; rising tensions in the US’ equations with both China and Russia; US-Iranian engagement; India-Pakistan dialogue.

The last point becomes crucial since much time has been lost in engaging Pakistan in a meaningful dialogue due to our competitive domestic politics leading to the April poll. Maybe, the Bharatiya Janata Party estimates that a new government dominated by it can always pick up the threads of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s dalliance with Sharif and, therefore, what is the hurry today about. But, as the US-Pakistan strategic dialogue forewarns, it will be first-rate naivety to imagine things are as simple as that. Lost time is never found again.

(The writer is a former ambassador)

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