US-Pakistan: Losing the plot
by Ramtanu Maitra on 02 Apr 2011 1 Comment

With the handover of $2 million-plus in “blood money” to Pakistani relatives of his shootout victims, the controversial Raymond Davis is back in the United States. While Davis’ release has enraged vast numbers of Pakistanis, it has pleased others, including US state department officials and the Pakistan “experts” in Washington.


Think-tank based Pakistan experts are particularly relieved by the Davis settlement, because the unsavory event had put them in a dilemma about who to support and who to condemn. These pundits that are tied to one or another faction of the American political spectrum find it difficult to keep the party line going vis-à-vis the US-Pakistan relationship: namely, that it is mutually beneficial, substantive, vital, and deep-rooted.


As a result, they focus on extraneous matters, and contrive to insert Jammu and Kashmir into the debate, to somehow justify the rabid anti-Americanism within Pakistan. They would like to blame Islamabad for it but the Afghan crisis prevents them.


Meanwhile, the contradictions proliferate and play out. Droning the “bad guys” in Pakistan’s tribal areas warring against US and NATO forces finds complete acceptance in the US. But hitting the Pakistani “terrorists” attacking Jammu and Kashmir does not.


You could categorize this as “talking-heads’ license.” But more often than not, commentators on US-Pakistan relations mistake the wood for the trees, fixing on one or another aspect of the relationship as if it were the Rosetta Stone. For example, last November, prior to President Barack Obama’s visit to India and other Asian nations, Moeed Yusuf, South Asia adviser at the US Institute of Peace’s Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention advanced a disingenuous argument.


Yusuf argued that the Kashmir issue was not only central to improving India-Pakistan relations, but US resolution of the J & K dispute would grow America-Pakistan ties. “While the situation in Afghanistan and the threat emanating from Pakistani Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) has preoccupied the international community in recent years, long-term stability in South Asia cannot be achieved unless Indo-Pak normalization becomes reality. Kashmir remains the single most important outstanding issue,” Yusuf proclaimed.


“The objective reality in terms of Pakistan’s state policy vis-à-vis terrorism in India is difficult to decipher,” Yusuf went on in a paper on “US-Pakistan-India”. “Pakistan pledges incapacity to eliminate all anti-India groups completely in the short run. This is valid. However, whether incapacity is complemented by lack of will - as India contends - is not clear.”


“Regardless, what is clear is that Kashmir remains intrinsically linked to acts of terrorism - it is the outstanding nature of this dispute that allows militant groups in Pakistan to rally and continue operating with a certain amount of legitimacy,” Yusuf concluded. In other words, the US-Pakistan relationship also includes the deal that Washington must impose a resolution of the Kashmir issue on India.


Missing the wood...


In late January, the US Institute for Peace (USIP) held a one-day programme, “The Future of Pakistan,” that featured many of the most prominent experts. Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution warned that the US must not squander the symbolic value of Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari’s expected visit to Washington, and be careful not to bad-mouth him ahead of the trip. Riedel suggested that Zardari ought to be asked to address a joint session of Congress to make the case for Pakistan. “He can fight for what Pakistan needs,” Riedel said. He also held that Obama’s pledge to visit Pakistan was rich with substantive and symbolic value. Riedel said Obama should get out of Islamabad to meet as many Pakistanis as he can. “This is an enormously important visit,” added Riedel. “He needs to connect with the Pakistani people.”


It is another matter that the Davis dispute and its prickly resolution have put Obama’s visit to Pakistan on long-term “hold”.


Another USIP academic, Andrew Wilder, pointed out that money may not be the all-encompassing solution. Since 2001, the US has given Pakistan some $15 billion in American aid, but the US-Pakistani relationship remains weak, at best.


Georgetown University’s Christine Fair (a former USIP senior research associate) noted that “It really is important that we think about a new “big idea” for Pakistan.” Fair said that the US and Pakistan actually don’t share strategic interests but can build a long-term alliance anyway.


For example, Islamabad does not believe that the US accepts Pakistan as a nuclear state. But if Washington conferred legitimacy on Pakistan’s nuclear programme, it could change the dynamic, she argued. “Putting that out on the table,” Fair argued, “creates an enormous space for us to talk about what you, Pakistan, can do to deal with these strategic issues over which we disagree so much.”


On the other hand, Brookings Institution’s Stephen Cohen focused on Kashmir. “The United States must have its own views on Kashmir. I think we should speak up and talk about this,” he said.


Another view is that the Kashmiris themselves must count for more. “For too long the Pakistanis and the Indians have been talking as if the Kashmiris don’t exist,” says the Atlantic Council’s Shuja Nawaz. “I see Kashmir as a great opportunity.”


Needed: Plain talking


One can begin to get an idea of what these experts are evading from an article by Arnold Zeitlin, “How Pakistan Is Seen by the Washington Think Tanks,” that appeared in the Pakistani daily, The News, in February. Zeitlin served as the first AP bureau chief in Islamabad in 1969 and was a close friend of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Zeitlin pungently wrote, “If Pakistan and the US were a married couple instead of being strategic players (if not partners), counselors would recommend at least a long, trial separation, if not total divorce.”


Though not part of the Washington punditocracy, Zeitlin attended the USIP’s discussion. He thought it “might have been more realistic to adopt the title used by the Heritage Foundation, which called a conference on Pakistan and the US “Deadly Embrace.” “Washington,” observed Zeitlin, “hosts what appears to be an endless fascination that borders on fantasy about the Pakistan-US relationship... Much of the DC hand-wringing about Pakistan often focuses on what the US must do to save its relationship with that benighted country.”


“I suspect the nervousness over saving Pakistan is rooted more than 60 years ago when the notorious China lobby of Henry Luce and others branded those Mao-influenced diplomats in the State Department as traitors for losing Chiang Kai-shek’s China to Mao Zedong. None now wants the distinction of losing Pakistan, even if Pakistanis are doing a good job of it themselves.”


Ramtanu Maitra is South Asia analyst for the Executive Intelligence Review in Washington DC. 

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