The debate on the Hill

Damned if I do, damned if I don’t

Pakistan continues to engage the imagination and attention of the US policy-makers. Wherever you go and whosoever you meet, the opening salvo is about the situation in Pakistan. Will it survive? Will it weather the increasing challenges on the internal and external fronts? Obviously, in order to escape the blushes of having failed to lay the foundations of a long-term relationship with Pakistan – a non-NATO ally – the US policy-makers continue to pursue lopsided policies in dealing with Pakistan.

The growing perception in the US decision-making echelons about Pakistan appears to be that of a country that is becoming increasingly ‘unmanageable’. The debate ranges from dubbing it as a ‘failed state’ to a ‘failing state’. Most of the blame for both these untenable positions is placed on the military as being unbending in its ‘belligerent’ mindset particularly with regard to India and, consequently, Pakistan’s expected role in the post-US-and-NATO-Afghanistan.

There is also intense debate regarding the ‘over-arching’ role of the judiciary that has allegedly led to the destabilisation of the political government. At the same time, there is overwhelming consensus about the rampant corruption plaguing the organs of the state leading to a crisis of governance. Some of this is now being grudgingly traced to the NRO, but bulk of the blame is attributed to the inherent corruption that has been the hallmark of the system practised in the country based on exploiting divisions along religious, ethnic, sectarian and economic lines. No one openly questions the need for an independent judiciary in the country as integral to building a credible and sustainable system, but there is some adverse speculation about its adjudications vis-à-vis the executive and their impact which, according to some, is even enhancing the credentials of the incumbent government.

The media’s role is also under close scrutiny. The dominant opinion is that it has not utilised its new-found freedom positively as the most critical ingredient of ‘objectivity’ has been rendered subservient to a pervading penchant for an over-opinionated approach. This has cultivated further divisions in an already truncated society. Guiding a debate along pragmatic lines for formulating and offering solutions to existing issues is practically absent which has adversely impacted the very essence of what media should be all about.

As can be gauged, the vast repertoire of criticism, emanating from a lack of comprehension of the dynamics that drive the Pakistani mindset, is a conspicuous component of the US preoccupation with it. This is leading to its gradual disengagement with the major policy-makers in the Pakistani hierarchy and the resultant frustration is compounding the situation. At times, there is visible anger in the caustic comments made about the country and its leadership.

Most of the frustration is related to Pakistan military’s ‘fight some’ and ‘protect some’ attitude in the war against terrorism. More specifically, this refers to the military’s refusal to move against the Haqqani network which allegedly constitutes a critical ingredient of Pakistan’s security paradigm in the post-2014 Afghanistan. While the Pakistan military terms the grouping essential for it to secure a place in Afghanistan after the US and NATO forces withdraw from the area, there is a move in the US Congress to slap the terrorist label on the Haqqani network. This is where the two strategies clash head-on: while Pakistan is eager to play a decisive role in Afghanistan after the US withdrawal, the US administration assertively links any Pakistani role with the elimination of the Haqqani network. As a consequence, Pakistan is being pushed into a tight corner with Afghanistan virtually handed over to India. This, inevitably, is perceived as an existential challenge to Pakistan as it opens up another long border for an already over-stretched military to guard in addition to the restive Eastern border that it shares with India.

So, should Pakistan quit its position and resign to the guidelines as outlined by the US in its quest for a chunk of role in Afghanistan? Well, it may already be too late for that as the 7-month ‘suspension’ of relationship between the two countries has contributed significantly to further widening of the trust-deficit between Pakistan and the US. This cannot be bridged in days or weeks. This would require a comprehensive strategy and a willingness on the part of both the countries to restart closed engagement and interaction.

This, apparently, is contrary to the conclusion that the US administration has reached as a result of prolonged bickering with their Pakistani counterparts – mostly military. The objective is to literally live through the tenures of the incumbent leaders and hope to deal more productively with the future government. This brings us to the core issue: will the US administration agree to deal with any government that takes over as a result of the next elections in Pakistan whenever they may be held? Well, not really. The original NRO plan having being botched up because of the untimely murder of Benazir Bhutto, they have no apparent love-lost for Zardari (a contention I find untenable). They also have little faith in the Sharifs. They have strong reservations about a right-leaning Imran Khan. The religious parties are out. So, who would the US be comfortable to deal with? A million-dollar question that seeks an answer: damned if I do, damned if I don’t!

Raoof Hasan

The writer is a political analyst and the Executive Director of the Regional Peace Institute. He can be reached at raoofhasan@hotmail.com.

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