No Alternative to Ties
By Moeed Yusuf


Tensions between the US and Pakistan have continued to escalate ever since the May 2, 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Both sides have chosen to engage in a tit-for-tat pattern of escalatory moves. These have only increased the already deep-seated mistrust in the relationship.

On both sides, an increasing number of opinion-makers are calling for a rethink of the relationship. In Pakistan, some influential voices are pointing to the need to consider a ‘plan B’ to offset the excessive reliance on the US. Over in Washington, the appetite to continue supporting Pakistan has thinned out substantially as well.

A careful analysis of the situation has left me bewildered at these calls to find alternatives to a stronger US-Pakistan engagement. The fact is that at this point, there simply is no viable ‘Plan B’. A breakdown in ties will cost both parties dearly in terms of their regional objectives.

Let me focus on the Pakistani side to provide a reality check.

Most calls for ‘Plan B’ hint at returning to the traditional strategic fallback option in times of adversity: leveraging ties with China, Saudi Arabia and some of the other friendly Gulf countries to a greater extent to balance the losses from a dysfunctional US-Pakistan relationship.

These avenues have serious limitations — mainly because of the bitter reality that none of Pakistan’s traditional partners are willing to stick their neck out at this point. China’s signaling on the issue has been fairly consistent. Beijing remains concerned about American ingress into the region. However, it has consistently avoided any direct diplomatic confrontation on the US role in Afghanistan and on Washington’s ties with Islamabad. In fact, China has actively shied away from posing as a potential substitute for the US role in supporting Pakistan.

Even tangibly, there is a qualitative mismatch between Washington and Beijing’s ability to provide for Pakistan’s needs. Going forward, the Chinese do see Pakistan as a major transit hub and as a floor for cheap production of low-value-added products; they will continue to invest in these endeavors. However, the Chinese model of assistance is far less amenable to providing direct cash infusions and emergency funds which provide immediate relief to the economy. Utility of US assistance is most critical in this regard.

On the defense side, the Chinese capacity to provide the hardware and capacity support that the US is able to is, as one senior military officer told me, “at least 50 years behind”. Not to mention, there has been extensive tactical counterterrorism cooperation between Pakistan and the US over the past decade which has benefited the Pakistani military significantly. The Chinese, or for that matter, no other country, will be able to match that.

Pakistan ’s relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have been consistently warm over the years; at a pinch, Islamabad has often persuaded them to help out. However, none of these countries has given any indication of a willingness to upgrade economic assistance massively to Pakistan in the near term. In fact, as their own economic woes have grown, they have been forced to cut back on support and even repatriate Pakistani labor in large numbers. Also important to recognize is the fact that much of the Gulf is very sensitive to US concerns and is therefore unlikely to back Pakistan’s case in direct opposition to the US (should we get to that stage in US-Pakistan relations).

Let us also not be naïve in thinking that a developing country like Pakistan, for all its importance, can live on the wrong side of a superpower without affecting its other relationships. To cite just one example: Washington wields tremendous influence over the international financial institutions (IFIs) and has much to do with IMF’s lenient attitude towards Pakistan. But IFI attitudes have been known to change rather abruptly when geopolitical environments take a turn. One ought to expect this, should signals from Washington become less favorable.

Also, a breakdown in US-Pakistan ties will undercut the very strategic interest Pakistan has been trying to protect all along: its regional balance vis-à-vis India. There is already a strong push in Washington for closer counterterrorism cooperation with India and to further exploit the convergence of US and Indian interests in South Asia. The move in this direction will only be accentuated if Washington and Islamabad part ways.

On Afghanistan, there is little doubt that the US is highly dependent on Islamabad for a favorable outcome. But it is equally true that Pakistan’s interests are unlikely to be satisfied without some level of support from Washington. To be sure, Pakistan’s nightmare scenario — a return to anarchy in Afghanistan — remains the most likely outcome should these two sides fail to complement each other’s efforts in the ‘endgame’ in Afghanistan.

The history of the post-Westphalian world teaches us that the biggest blunders by states often have at their core miscalculations by leaderships about their country’s self-worth, their options and the surrounding dynamics. Pakistan, like any other nation state, has a right to exploit interstate relations to its advantage; and it is entirely reasonable for Pakistan to reach out to its traditional partners as much as it wants. However, none of these overtures can be based on misplaced perceptions about the intentions and ability of these states.

The fact is that Pakistan is extremely constrained in its options today. Unfair as it may be, the global narrative about Pakistan has forced even the best of friends to shy away from going the extra mile to back Islamabad’s case. Pakistani state policies have to be crafted keeping this reality in mind.

There is certainly a need to recalibrate the relationship with the US. That said, it is dangerous for the Pakistani state to create an impression that ties with America are a net negative and that Islamabad will be better off without it. Let us face it — things may not be good at present, but they will be far worse if we go too far down this road. A breakdown may be bad for Washington, but it will be disastrous for Pakistan.

(The writer is South Asia adviser at the US Institute of Peace, Washington, DC. Courtesy Dawn)



Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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