US cannot afford to lose its soft influence in Pakistan
the week after President Donald Trump berated Pakistan over its Afghanistan policy and laid down new demands for cooperation with Islamabad, the government in Pakistan has decided to bring a policy review to redefine its relations with Washington. While Pakistan has reaffirmed its commitment to promote peace in the region, the country’s leadership has also warned that Afghanistan’s war cannot fought inside Pakistan’s frontiers.
The central question remains: will Pakistan redefine its partnership terms with Washington or it’s the latter that should think about re-approaching Pakistan?
The history of Pakistan and the United States bilateral relations is littered with mutual accusations of betrayals which often conclude in cosmetic re-approaching. After the 9/11, Islamabad has endeavored to reduce its strategic dependence on Washington due to reasons related to mutual distrust, diversification of its foreign policy and the latter’s attempt to find more reliable allies and partners, such as China and more recently Russia. With Pakistan’s economic and military dependence set to grow further on China, Washington is likely to lose its historic and hard earned influence in Pakistan’s strategic policy affairs. For instance, the Trump administration’s recent announcement of putting an end to Pakistan’s military aid is an evolution that should push Pakistan away from Washington’s sphere of influence. Loosing Pakistan as a strategic ally doesn’t in any way serve the United States interests in the region and that too at a time when the latter’s global leadership is being challenged by other emerging economic and military powers.
In Afghanistan, Washington needs better strategy rather than only targeting Pakistan which is forcing Islamabad into other regional countries sphere of influence. For the United States, earlier the region’s strategic value was measured mainly in terms of the Cold War struggle with the former Soviet Union. Now however, the region’s geopolitical and geostrategic realties have radically altered: China with its ‘One Belt, One Road’ global infrastructure project, is eyeing to gain foothold in areas that were previously considered Washington’s zone of influence. In this regard, Afghanistan presents a real challenge for the U.S. policy makers, for Beijing appears to be skillfully using its diplomacy and deep pockets to gain influence in the country. Would the new Great Game in Afghanistan be played at the behest of Washington’s interests? How should the US’s prepare for any such outcome in Afghanistan?
The US cannot continue to lose its soft influence in Pakistan, for that will only push away Islamabad which doesn’t sit well with Washington’s interests in the Asian region. Since the Second World War, South Asia’s geopolitics has arguably experienced two major strategic phases. First period lasted from the end of the Second World War till the implosion of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall. During the first phase, the United States capacity to influence events and policies with either persuasion or coercion, or combination of both was mightier than any other regional or global competitor. During the second phase, which arguably began after the September 9/11 attacks, U.S. has faced fierce competition from rising global powers – such as China, Russia, and Germany and to some extent India – when it comes to projecting the country’s influence to sway regional policies.
In South Asia particular, Washington has lost its previous capacity to project its dominance. Among other factors, this has happened due to a growing imbalance between the country’s ‘Hard Power’ and ‘Soft Power’ components in policy making. For instance, while Pakistan has remained an ally of Washington in its war against terrorism, the country has shown adequate capacity to dodge Washington’s demands and has refused to toe its policy line, overtly and covertly. Arguably, even after more than five decades of diplomatic, economic and military assistance, Washington doesn’t have as much influence in Pakistan as Beijing has cultivated in a short duration, largely due to its reliance on soft power, usually termed as “smiling diplomacy” rather than coercion, which is commonly associated with U.S.’s image.
Clearly, while U.S’s still remains a predominant power in the Asia pacific region, the country has considerably lost its soft power image vis-à-vis other emerging regional and global players. The growing shift towards the use of hard power poses a challenge for the U.S.’s soft political power image. Washington cannot afford to lose the battle of optics, images and perceptions at a time when challenging to its dominance are swiftly rising.
If U.S. is looking for scapegoats in Pakistan in an attempt to secure face saving in Afghanistan then this will have strategic implications for the region’s security. Clearly, the new administration in Washington has made the task difficult with its reliance on coercion, threats and bullying as a strategic preference to deal with Pakistan particularly. The U.S’s soft power image was never under as much threat as it is now. Washington needs to secure Pakistan’s partnership rather than reject it.