Pak-US ‘Strategic Ties’ Limited to ‘War on Terror’
Weekly Pulse
March 10-16, 2006
If there is one concrete conclusion to draw from US President Bush’s visit to Pakistan, it is that Washington perceives Pakistan’s strategic role only in relation to the ‘war on terror.’ As for India, America’s ties are strategic in truest sense, meant essentially to prop up the world’s ‘largest democracy’ as a hedge against communist China in the long run.

President Bush made it clear during his joint press conference with President Musharraf held after the two leaders had a one-to-one dialogue at the Presidency that “much more” needed to be accomplished in Pakistan’s role in the ‘war on terror.’ This means that ties between the two countries may remain ‘strategic’ as long as this war goes on. How long the war lasts will, in turn, depend upon how much priority terrorism receives in the post-Bush United States.

Bush Offers

After seeing the US leader offering so much to India, Pakistanis were expecting that he would at least offer some concrete reward for the ‘frontline’ role that Islamabad has been playing in the ‘war on terrorism’ since the events of 9/11. Contrary to these expectations, President Bush offered nothing substantive. No surprise that on the first trading day after President Bush’s visit, the benchmark index of Karachi Stock Exchange fell by 4.1 per cent, the biggest decline in nine months.

Unlike Pakistan, during his comparatively extensive Indian sojourn, President Bush went to the extent of violating the basic spirit of the nuclear non-proliferation regime by awarding an unprecedented nuclear cooperation deal to India, South Asia’s principal proliferator. The two countries also concluded a number of other wide-ranging agreements covering areas such as information technology and agricultural research.

For Pakistan, the US leader offered nothing but a symbolic praise for his contribution to peace process with India. President Bush did indicate US willingness to provide free access to Pakistani exports in the US market and continued financial assistance for educational development in the country.

However, in both cases, the future US engagement was linked to the country’s commitment to combat terrorism. For instance, only those Pakistani products would have free access to US market that are produced in the export reprocessing zones establishment by the government in terrorism-ridden regions, such as the Pashtun tribal belt bordering Afghanistan. The US educational assistance may also be specifically aimed at assisting the government’s attempts to reform madrassas, which are widely perceived to be a harbinger of terrorism.

Body Language

What may have actually transpired during the one-to-one meeting between Presidents Bush and Musharraf at the Presidency is something that is privy to both leaders. However, from their body language at the joint press conference, it was clear that the meeting took place in a not-so-friendly climate.

One can, for instance, construe from President Musharraf’s harsh comments about Afghan President Hamid Karzai that the US leader indeed took up the matter of militant infiltration from Pakistan’s tribal belt into Afghanistan quite seriously. In New Delhi, the Indians may have done their own brainstorming before the American leader on Islamabad’s alleged sponsorship of Kashmiri militancy.

President Musharraf’s explanation about the shortcomings of his regime in tackling the infiltration issue was that the ‘slippage’ was occurring at the level of the implementation stage of the country’s counter-terrorism strategy. In President Musharraf’s own words, the strategy was “clear,” since both the “intention and resolve” of the government were indisputable. How far the Bush administration buys such reasoning on his part is a debatable question. However, the fact is that Washington seems to be dissatisfied with the country’s current performance in the ‘war on terrorism,’ and that it wants Islamabad to “do much more.”

Even on democracy’s front, the Bush administration may be up for a sea-change in its policy towards the current government. President Musharraf appeared to be so lacking in confidence that it was left to the visiting leader to remind him that he had to answer the question about his country’s democratic future. Even though the questioner, an American female journalist, did not refer to the uniform issue, the President’s long answer about his pioneering contribution to introducing real democracy in the country culminated into an extended explanation about the constitutionality of his retaining military uniform until 2007.

Difficulties Ahead

Diplomatically speaking, Islamabad may face difficult times ahead. One of the reasons why Washington is building up India is due to the growing American perception that democratic India could prove to be an antidote to Islamic militarism in the region in the short run, besides proving to be a counterpoise to communist China in the long run. Probably that is why President Bush in his unusually emotional speech at Purana Qila in Delhi handed over the responsibility of building a democratic Afghanistan singularly to India.

More than anything else, it is this development that must have upset Islamabad’s decision makers, who perceive Pakistan’s role in the establishment of Karzai-led regime in Afghanistan as “most critical.” What they had hoped while taking a u-turn on their support to Taliban in 2001 and a second u-turn on their support to Kashmiri militants in 2002 has simply not materialized. In fact, there is a danger that future developments in America’s ties with India and Afghanistan may further circumvent Islamabad’s ability to call the shots in the region.

Three Options

In an increasingly unfavourable regional climate, Pakistan is left with three options.

Foster a strategic relationship with China: Besides Pakistan, Beijing may itself be worried about Indo-US strategic partnership in nuclear and defense fields. President Musharraf’s visit to China days before President Bush’s visit to South Asia, during which the two countries signed some 13 agreements, indicates that Pakistan has started to act credibly to exercise this option.

Speed up its performance in counter-terrorism: This is required to remain relevant to the US-led ‘war on terror,’ especially vis-à-vis Afghanistan. Islamabad does simultaneously appear not to abandon this option, despite a merely symbolic outcome of President Bush’s visit to the country. This is clear from the timing of the largest-ever military operation in South Waziristan that began a day before President Bush’s arrival in Islamabad and has resulted in the killing of some 200 militants in and around Miran Shah.

Move credibly on the road to democracy. This option is required to remain relevant externally and consolidate internally. Unlike the above two options, however, it is debatable whether the present regime is serious about exercising democratic option. Given that democracy is the most effective hedge against religious extremism and its militant ramifications, it should be in the interest of Pakistan that the next general elections be free and fair, and that their outcome should be a visible political transformation that gives due place to the country’s mainstream parties.

The Bottomline

Ever since President Bush departed from Islamabad, President Musharraf has been busy convincing Pakistanis that their country’s “geo-political” location will continue to make it relevant to great power politics. He has gone public in accusing Defense Ministry of the Karzai regime for conspiring against Pakistan’s security interests. He has urged the nation not to be “Indo-centric,” not to bother about Indo-US nuclear deal since this is a matter of “inter-state ties.” All this fine talk may not be mostly untrue.

We should have long abandoned Indo-centrism, and we should indeed not be much bothered about what transpires in future in the context of Indo-US ties. It is also unethical on the part of Afghan leaders, Rabbani before and Karzai now, to turn against a country which hosted them for years in Quetta and Peshawar.

As for democracy, President Musharraf may have his reasons to owe an explanation to others; as a nation, we need not. We need democracy not for anyone’s sake. We need it to liberate ourselves from the shackles of bigotry. We need it because next-door India is democratic. We need it because next-door Afghanistan is being democratized with UN assistance, and, possibility, with greater Indian input in the immediate future.

We need to understand that it is democracy that would make Pakistan more relevant regionally and internationally. Mere geo-politics of the country may only help it secure transitory ‘strategic’ alliances such as the one currently with the US on the ‘war on terror.’