Strategic and (then) real!

Ejaz Haider

The Friday Times: July 30 – August 05, 2010 – Vol. XXII, No. 24

When do two countries, both wary of each other, call their dialogue “strategic”? When they know there’s nothing strategic about their relationship, perched as it is on the tip of a one-point agenda. And when do they add the adjectives “elevated” and “upgraded” to define the strategic dialogue? When they are trying too hard and failing, and know that no one is buying.

Okay, so it is strategic because there are 13 working groups dealing with a range of issues. In which case, how does one account for what visiting US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said to the BBC upon arrival:

“There are still additional steps that we are asking and expecting the Pakistanis to take… [We have] increased our cooperation, deepened our relationship, when it comes to fighting terrorism. But there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that should an attack against the United States be traced to a Pakistani it would have a very devastating impact on our relationship.”

Did I get that right? After going through reams of transcripts of speeches, joint pressers, sundry agreements and MoUs, all high on adjectives, expressions of good will and promises for the future, the sting in the tail?!

Strategic is not about discussing a range of issues, especially when in the shadows lurks one issue that can walk into the room and eclipse everything else; it is about the depth of relations and trust. Depth is what absorbs a shock when one comes; trust is what prevents an irritant from going viral and damaging relations across the board.

Sure, the US wants to stay close to Pakistan and impact Pakistan along multiple lines. But it has to proceed from the immediate to a theoretical long term and the immediate itself, after ten years, has become fairly long term without much resolution and without losing its immediacy and urgency. The US also wants, just to clarify the point, to stay close to India. The difference: we worry the US; India interests the US.

So, the US would amend its domestic legislation and lobby feverishly on behalf of India with the Nuclear Suppliers Group to get India an exception being non-signatory to the NPT. Would it, for Pakistan? No. Secretary Clinton, answering a question regarding China’s supply of nuclear reactors to Pakistan, said: “…we are constantly talking with Pakistan about its energy needs, including the role for nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. We believe that the NSG, which has recently met to examine the sale…has posed a series of questions that should be answered, because…there are concerns by the international community…”

The point is simple. There is nothing to be starry-eyed about. But nor is there reason to feel dejected. What is happening is a logical upshot of the interaction and conflict of two security paradigms, two states defining their concerns, implementing policies accordingly, sometimes in consonance, quite often at variance. Both need each other, reluctantly but definitely.

It is the inevitability, the knowledge that they cannot disengage, which can be worked to their advantage. The jig is up on the US venture in Afghanistan; the surge hasn’t worked (even the small area of Marjah remains troublesome); the building up of the Afghan police and army is an exercise in deep frustration; the number of development workers may have gone up but not many can move around freely and do what they are supposed to; Kabul itself is far less secure than in 2003 when, to quote Secretary Clinton, “I went into downtown Kabul, went to a restaurant for dinner. I visited the library and a museum that was just reopening. And it is my hope and prayer that on one of my future visits, either as Secretary of State or private citizen, I will be able to do the same again”. She was speaking to the staff of the US embassy in Kabul after attending the international conference in that city.

On a wing and a prayer, landing is still possible. On hope, a four-letter word in military strategy, and a prayer, it’s asking for a lot. But that is precisely where Pakistan comes in. That is, if Pakistan has made any effort to actually formulate a viable policy where it can take the lead to lessen the pain of transition from what it is likely to be after ten years of troubled and troubling Afghanistan.

Here are some questions; the list, by no means, is exhaustive.

  • How are we sure that we have enough influence with the Taliban for some of them, if not all, to accept a power-sharing formula when the time for it comes?
  • Have we started making efforts to convince the Americans that the situation has gone beyond a conditions-based withdrawal; that the use of force is not translating into utility of force?
  • Can we convince the Americans to put more energy into a process-based political solution?
  • What strategy do we have to deal with our own Taliban as we try to pull the Afghan Taliban centre-stage?
  • How are we going to deal with the India factor? India has invested some USD1.5 billion in Afghanistan’s development and is working right down to the districts. Are we playing a zero-sum game with India or is there a possibility to cooperate in and through a mechanism that allows for synergies and gains for all the actors?
  • Have we made any overtures towards the non-Pashtun actors in Afghanistan; or are we relying on exploiting the ethnic divide? If the latter, how are we preparing to cope with the fallout?
  • No one can predict the endgame in Afghanistan. The country presents a wicked problem. Nonetheless, as we play for high stakes against other actors, regional and international, it would be foolish to follow the paradigm of the 90s. We have a geographical and historical role to play in Afghanistan. But that role must be envisaged in terms of strategic cooperation with other actors. That’s the only way to take the lead.

 The writer is National Affairs Editor, Newsweek Pakistan. He can be reached at ejazhaider26@gmail.com

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