Secretary Clinton's Challenges in Pakistan

By Touqir Hussain | Ambassador (ret.) and Adjunct Professor | Nov 5, 2009

Secretary Clinton’s visit to Pakistan has been a serious attempt to use public diplomacy to help the troubled US Pakistan relations. Her reaching out to people with a mix of soft power and hard talk was refreshing. It is time to ‘clear the air’ she said. But a lot more work needs to be done in the realm of policy to bring about a meaningful change in the relationship.

The problems between Pakistan and the United States, referred to as the “trust deficit” for want of a better word, are many and mask much complexity at the heart of policy and systemic issues on both sides. Trust deficit reflects as well as affects not only conflicting national interests but also differing policies on shared interests. And even when policies and interests have converged there has been temptation by each to clinch short term objectives to the sacrifice of broader strategic purposes. Even though historically the relationship has served some important interests of both countries it has not been without a cost.

Now after decades of ups and down the cumulative effect is that the US Pakistan relationship itself has become a crisis at the heart of which is the crisis within Pakistan, something that had been waiting to happen at some un calendared day for a long time . But the irony is Pakistanis vastly exaggerate the contribution that the US has made to their troubles specially after 9/11, and Americans grossly underestimate it. And neither side understands the other. And that is what is sticking out now in the minds of Pakistanis in this hour of difficulty.

Pakistan was troubled even before 9/11 and its partnership with Washington has made its problems worse. Conspiracy theories that the US is out to destabilize Pakistan to go after its nukes can be dismissed easily. But how can we reject the widely shared public perception in Pakistan that 9/11 and the US policies have brought the country to the brink.

There are two essential requirements for change. Pakistan will have to follow a different script that they have to write for themselves. The US can--and should-- help but has to change its own role. And more importantly both have to do something about anti Americanism without which nothing will move.

Even discounting conspiracy theories there are enough understandable reasons for Pakistanis to feel the way they now do about America. And this feeling has a wide spectrum touching anti India sentiments on one end and Islam on the other. An in between: the suicide attacks, car bombings and drone attacks that have come to threaten Pakistan’s stability, territorial integrity even its very future—a threat being blamed on a faulty Afghanistan war.

Pakistanis have to rise above the anti Americanism to have a better sense of national priorities and moral clarity about the wellspring of internal threats it is facing. Clinton delivered a right message to Pakistanis whether they liked it or not. But Washington too needs to help. Call the relationship as enhanced partnership or whatever its conceptual framework largely remains what it has been always—transactional. Strategic challenges cannot be addressed by contractual relationships which become a source of recurring tension. They need a strategic framework adequate to addressing Pakistan’s inner conflicts, tensions, insecurities, power imbalances and paradoxes.

The US has traditionally worked within the flawed elite based system of governance in Pakistan helping its perpetuation. Washington has to relate to people and help their gradual empowerment by addressing the power imbalances specially in the social structure and civil military relations. It will facilitate Pakistan’s economic development.

The US can also help by tackling Pakistan’s national security concerns that focus largely on Afghanistan and India. Afghanistan is a political challenge with a military dimension not the other way around that has to be solved independently on both sides of the border not by the US but with its support and in the context of friendly relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

India cannot rise under the threat of destabilization by Pakistan and Pakistan cannot become a normal state without normal relations with India. But there is a reluctance here to include India in the regional solution. The assumption is that US has no leverage vis a vis India. Try telling Pakistanis that the rising India owes nothing to rising US India relationship? And that there is no compatibility in their strategic interests or purposes in the region compelling them to work together including on Pakistan? If India is getting US help only to advance its own interests some of which run counter to the American interests why blame only Pakistan for doing the same? Holbrooke’s mandate must include India and Iran. And we are not talking here of the K word or any public mediation.

The US needs to fix its Afghanistan policy to ease things for Pakistan. Longer the war goes on worse it would be for Pakistan. The US must try to finish the job. For that purpose the US does need more troops there. But the debate is being erroneously defined in terms of surge. The fact it has been a grossly under –resourced war. More troops will not mean surge but bringing the troop levels to more realistic levels. About the same time in the back of their minds the US strategic planners should start thinking in terms of an international conference if the new military strategy does not work. It is the bigger challenge Pakistan that should dictate the lesser one Afghanistan than the other way round.

Pakistan is indeed the central challenge. And that is probably where Al Qaeda is. And the Taliban sanctuaries. Treat the Taliban as a political force not as terrorists. Co-opt them and get them over to the Afghanistan side. Once in Afghanistan their nexus with Al Qaeda can be broken as they will never be able to control Afghanistan the way they did before 9/11. Al Qaeda can then be dealt with in Pakistan. But if they both remain in Pakistan it will be hard to control either. President Obama will do well to consider this as he ponders over a new Afghanistan policy.

Assertions and opinions in this Commentary are solely those of the above-mentioned author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.