The last(ing) tango

If abused patience runs the risk of turning into fury, has American patience with Pakistan finally run out and should we expect a major falling-out?

By Monday, it was clear Pakistan had been shipwrecked on the rocks of its own intransigence, reduced to a hangdog at a summit at which it had thought it was a late but indispensible guest. President Obama first refused to meet one-on-one with President Zardari and then let the castaway president sit by and watch as Obama ignored Pakistan and thanked Russia and other Central Asian countries for providing “critical transit” of war supplies into Afghanistan since pesky Islamabad decided to close down routes. This after successive snubs from the Nato secretary-general and Defence Secretary Panetta.

Suddenly, no one had any interest in poor AZ or an even poorer Pakistan.

American messaging was clear enough: we thought we had a deal – an unconditional invitation for Pakistan to attend the Nato summit in exchange for opening routes. We sent negotiators to Pakistan who spent weeks trying to narrow differences. We had every reason – got every signal – to believe an agreement on re-establishing routes was imminent. And yet, Zardari arrived in Chicago without a deal in his pocket but full of demands: a review of the US drones’ policy, a public apology for Salala, more money for each truck passing through the supply routes. That wasn’t part of the deal. And what’s with Ambassador Sherry Rehman writing an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune a day before the summit, demanding the Salala apology?

We’re eyeing the exits in Afghanistan and it looks like Pakistan wants to hurt, not help, our goals – is the American message. Sorry, but you’re benched if you don’t understand the rules of the game well enough.

So, as one US official put it; “If they’re [Pakistanis] feeling a little bit of pressure this weekend, they should…The US and Nato are ready to move beyond this issue.”

But are they? Will they? Has Washington lost all appetite for engaging Islamabad? When public humiliation comes, can malign neglect and active isolation be far behind? In a bid to end Islamabad’s defiance, which route will the US now take?

Not the punishment route, that’s for sure. There are, after all, good reasons for why the US has exercised ‘strategic patience’ for so long despite Pakistani sass.

Let’s start with the basics. Will the United States’ heavy reliance on the land route through Pakistan disappear in the next year? Unlikely. And even while the pullout may throw up new policy options, does President Obama really have all the levers he expects?

Just think back to the 1990s – the US cutting off military and civilian assistance and imposing sanctions? Remember how that story ended? Definitely not with Pakistan giving up on developing nuclear capability. Even today, consider the fall-out of US arrogance and pigheadedness on the Raymond Davis affair: Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders were forced to combine forces and help encourage anti-Americanism and inflame a bubbling nationalism already bloodied by religion and anti-outsider passions.

Does the US really want to wield the stick and risk making Pakistan’s ‘nationalistic’ elites and public even less cooperative?

And then there are the good guys on both sides who believe, especially after Kerry Lugar, that the US won’t wield the stick because it genuinely wants to help build a more capable, democratic, responsible – in short, a better – Pakistan. That it doesn’t just want Pakistan to comply with its immediate security needs but also has a long-term vision for the country. It realises that even if it got what it wanted on the security front right now, that would not solve the problems Pakistan may pose for American security in the future. And so, while the US may roar at Pakistan on occasion, and grunt and grumble, ultimately, it will desist from using the nuclear options.

But maybe, there’s a more menacing explanation for why US ‘strategic patience’ is the gift that keeps on giving. Maybe this has something to do with an understanding on the US side that it needs to cut its losses in Afghanistan and exit while Pakistan will persist as the ‘main’ problem. Maybe the US has come to realise that the real, far greater threat is an unstable, nuclear-armed Pakistan. If that really is the lesson Obama has learnt from the Af-Pak conundrum – that it should really have been the Pak-Af conundrum – then maybe it makes sense for the US to go easy on Pakistan right now because ‘addressing’ the Pakistan problem in the next phase, post the Afghan war, would require some kind of relationship with Pakistan.

Even after the US pullout from Afghanistan, the Americans will continue to retain strategic regional interests, Central Asian energy resources being one of the key attractions. Moscow and Washington may be cooperating today but the thought of a resurgent Russia leaves Washington feeling queasy. The growing influence of Iran in the region will need to be cornered and the Haqqani elephant in the room will still need to be tamed.

There is life beyond the Afghan war and US policy makers realise that Pakistan is an important part of it.

For all these reasons and more, isolating Pakistan is not an option; neither is slashing military and civilian assistance, severing intelligence cooperation, escalating drone strikes, initiating unilateral cross-border raids or even declaring Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism and imposing sanctions on it. In a relationship mired by surprises – such as the Raymond Davis episode or the bin Laden raid – direct lines of communication are a requirement for the management of the unexpected.

So, no surprises on what to expect from the US: it may do everything wrong before it finally does the right thing, but it’s unlikely it will abandon Pakistan or wield the dreaded stick.

But how will Pakistan behave and will it get its act together? – that’s probably where the surprises will lie.


The writer is an assistant editor, The News. Email:; twitter: @mehreenzahra

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  1 comment for “The last(ing) tango

    May 29, 2012 at 1:11 am

    Isn’t it time that we said goodbye to Uncle Sam and broke the ‘Kashkol’?

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