During my recant visit to the US, I found from a yard sale a book entitled ‘America’s Stake in Asia’ written in 1968 by Drew Middleton, a renowned foreign correspondent, first for the Associated Press, and later for The New York Times who covered the World War II from D-Day to V-Day before returning to New York in 1965 to become The New York Times’ chief correspondent at the United Nations.
A chapter in his book entitled ‘Pakistan: The Lost Friend’ gave an incisive account of how Washington’s total insensitivity to its close ally and partner Pakistan’s legitimate security concerns vis-à-vis India had generated a sense of alienation among the people of Pakistan.
While deploring Washington’s nearsighted policies, Middleton presciently called Pakistan the “pattern” for Asian nations of the future; independent, tough and opportunistic. In his view, Pakistan’s “geographical situation and a dozen other considerations made it virtually important to peace in the whole of Asia and the world at large.”
This old book on America’s stakes in Asia may have ended in the trash, but Pakistan, a fiercely independent country, has rarely disappeared for any length of time from America’s strategic radar screen. For more than 60 years now, it has loomed large in one form or another, either as a staunch ally and partner, or a troublesome friend, or even as a target. Now, for the first time, it is all of these things. The war on terror may have provided the rationale for the current US ‘engagement’ with Pakistan but this war neither limits the relationship’s scope nor exhausts the challenges it faces.
The Pakistan-US relationship is not about any particular incident or individual said to be based in our tribal areas or about any Afghanistan-related setback to the US-led Isaf forces. It is an old relationship that has survived many ups and downs, and yet remains fundamentally strong and enduring. As Drew Middleton said nearly half a century ago, Pakistan’s unique geo-strategic importance makes it indispensable to peace and stability not only in this region but also for the world at large.
Its location gave Pakistan an unrivalled relevance to the Cold War dynamics. The policy of containment in its final decisive phase was enacted on our soil. The post-9/11 situation yet again made Pakistan a pivotal US ally and partner in its war on terror in Afghanistan. The Afghans are not the only victims of the Afghan tragedy. Pakistan has suffered more in multiple ways in terms of refugee influx, socio-economic burden, rampant terrorism, unabated violence and protracted conflict in its border areas with Afghanistan.
And yet, one is bewildered at Pakistan’s demonisation by its friends and allies. With almost daily violations of its territorial integrity and sovereign independence in violation of the UN Charter, and regular accusations and slander hurled at it, our people wonder in anguish whether their country is America’s partner or target in fighting a common enemy. Coercive and sometimes accusatory and slanderous approaches towards Pakistan, its armed forces and security agencies have been counterproductive and have only fuelled anti-Americanism. Any perceptional differences could have been sorted out through mutual dialogue channels, not through media or military-led public diplomacy.
There is something fundamentally wrong with US public diplomacy when it comes to Pakistan. Our most distinguished frequent diplomatic interlocutors from Washington are not State Department officials but hardcore senior officials and military commanders from the Pentagon and the CIA. Leon Panetta, Admiral Mike Mullen, Gen Petraeus, and the likes of Bruce Reidel are now the ones calling ‘diplomatic’ shots when it comes to Pakistan. Ambassador Munter, poor he, is standing on the margins caught in this most undiplomatic CIA-led militarist volley against Pakistan. It is time to correct this approach lest the mastless US public diplomacy leads to total alienation of this country and its 180 million people.
Indeed, since 9/11, it is the US military or the CIA that communicates with foreign audiences, at times through missiles and drone attacks. American diplomacy in Pakistan, in particular, is a classic manifestation of this approach. According to a veteran US diplomat, this “mission creep” has gone way out of hand. Pentagon-led US public diplomacy is a dismal failure. Never in our history did we have so much public resentment against US policies and behaviour.
Critics all around, Washington insiders and the public beyond the Beltway, members of both major political parties, even America’s friends abroad, all recognise that US public diplomacy has had a great fall. A number of separate studies, reports and findings on American diplomacy prepared by academic groups and non-governmental commissions endorse this conclusion. The common theme in these reports is that the US now has totally different priorities in the world. US image-building is now left to the Pentagon, leaving very little to non-military institutions for articulation of America’s “ideas and ideals” overseas and advance its foreign policy goals.
Instead of continuing with the lamentable “blame game” using Pakistan as an easy “scapegoat” for their own failures in this war, the US and its allies must accept the reality that for Pakistan, Afghanistan is an area of fundamental strategic importance. If the Soviet presence in Cuba almost triggered a nuclear war in the early 1960s, India’s continued ascendancy in Afghanistan will remain a danger of no less gravity to the already volatile security environment of this nuclearised region. The risk of a Pakistan-India proxy war in Afghanistan is fraught with perilous implications for regional and global peace, and must be averted at all cost.
Whatever the end-game, durable peace in Afghanistan will remain elusive as long as Pakistan’s legitimate security concerns in the region remain unaddressed. The US will need Pakistan’s active involvement in any Afghan-led political settlement if it is genuinely seeking one for its honourable exit from this unwinnable war. It seems over the last couple of years, the two countries have had no control over the growing list of unwanted irritants, some of which could have easily been avoided if both sides were guided by the concept of mutuality of interest in their relationship.
But let’s be honest. The problem is not the US-Pakistan relationship. The problem is its poor and shortsighted management on both sides. For Washington, it remains a transactional relationship. On our side, this relationship has been used by our inept rulers solely as their political and economic crutches, and for their self-serving notorious deals. It is time to make this relationship a normal relationship based on mutuality rather than one-sided transactions, conditionality-based aid packages or notorious deals impinging on this country’s sovereign independence and dignity.
The US may have a long list of its own unlearnt lessons, but for Pakistan and its civilian and military rulers there is only one lesson to be learnt now. There is a silver-lining in this current impasse. Throw your begging bowls and the crutches of foreign aid. America’s first president George Washington in his farewell address in 1796 had left some advice for you. Lamenting the fate of nations that leave themselves at the mercy of other powers, he said, “it was a folly to be the satellite of the latter or looking for disinterested favours from another” because “it must pay with a portion of its independence and its sovereignty for whatever it may accept under that character.”
Our foremost challenge at this critical juncture is not what we are required to do for others’ interests; it is what we ought to do to serve our own national interests. We need to regain our lost sovereignty, independence, freedom of action and national dignity. We should thank Admiral Mike Mullen for shaking us upside down, and giving us this opportunity to stand up again with our chins held high.
The writer is a former foreign secretary. Email: shamshad1941@ yahoo.com