Following the rapid deterioration in the relationship between Washington and Islamabad in recent weeks, Pakistan is engaged in an intense review of the available strategic options. Islamabad-Washington relations have never been easy. But despite many ups and downs, there was a recovery every time, especially when the US felt it needed Pakistan to pursue its strategic objectives. In 1979, the US had needed Pakistan’s support to expel the Soviet Union from Afghanistan. Again, in 2001, America needed Pakistan’s air space to launch air strikes on Kabul as a punishment for the support it had provided to the terrorists involved in the September 11 attacks in the US.
This time, the rupture is as deep as the one in 1998, when Pakistan tested a nuclear device in the hills of Baluchistan. However, it appears that the repair work will be more difficult this time. This is for three reasons. One, Pakistan’s military leadership seems to have concluded that Washington is too unreliable a partner to bank on for long-term support. The suspension of one-third of the total amount that Washington committed to help the Pakistani military build its capacity to fight terrorism has confirmed the belief that China offers a better alternative for the needed support — of the total amount of $2.64 billion, $800 million have been put on hold. Over the years, Pakistan and China have been engaged in collaborating on a number of large military hardware projects. These include China’s support in building Khalid, a battlefield tank in a facility at Taxila near Islamabad. The Chinese are also partnering Pakistan to develop a fighter plane. Beijing may also invest in developing Gwadar as a deep-water port, which to be used by the naval forces of the two countries. Since Washington treats Beijing as a rival for influence in South Asia, Pakistan’s play with China will be seen as a zero-sum game — China’s gain will be seen as America’s loss.
America is also threatening to cut down economic aid to Pakistan. When the Kerry-Lugar Bill was being written in the US Congress, the George W Bush administration indicated that it needed a relationship with Pakistan that would not be subject to the pursuit of short-term political objectives. It encouraged the US Congress to write a legislation that would guarantee assistance to Pakistan on a sustainable basis. The Senate obliged by passing a Bill that promised economic assistance of the order of $7.5 billion to Pakistan over five years. The Bill was signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2009 and the US began work on developing a five-to-ten year programme of assistance to Islamabad. It now appears that the flow of promised money may be interrupted. A Bill to that effect has been moved in the House of Representatives. This move has further shaken Pakistan’s confidence in the continuity of a rewarding relationship with the US.
The second reason for the evolution of a different kind of Pak-US relationship is Washington’s increasingly close ties with New Delhi. In November 2010, while on a visit to India, President Barack Obama famously told an Indian audience that India was not a rising power, it had already risen. On a three-day visit to New Delhi and Chennai in July, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that her country’s developing relations with India were based on a very wide front. So many areas were covered by the two sides in their meetings in New Delhi – ranging from counter-terrorism to building e-governance software to training farmers in Africa – that Ms Clinton told reporters that she thought she was in a monsoon downpour. The idea for collaboration kept falling thick and fast from the sky.
The third reason is Pakistan’s decision to broaden its reach to the outside world and not just focus on relations with the US. Since the near-breakdown in relations with Washington, Islamabad has reached out to China, Iran and Saudi Arabia. President Asif Ali Zardari visited Tehran twice within a few weeks, sent his prime minister and defence minister to Beijing and then went to Saudi Arabia. In all these places, Pakistan was pursuing two objectives: to be recognised as an important player in resolving the Afghan conflict and in obtaining financial and other types of economic assistance. Both matters are of critical importance to Pakistan.
Not all of these moves by Islamabad are in response to the US’ unhappiness with the way Pakistan is handling its contribution to the war against Islamic militancy. Washington has let it be known that it wants Islamabad to sever its relations with some of the militant groups it has supported in the past. These include the one headed by Mullah Omar, Afghanistan’s de facto head of state at the time of the Taliban rule. He is said to be operating out of Quetta, the capital of the Pakistani province of Baluchistan. Pakistan is also reluctant to go after the group headed by Jalaluddin Haqqani, which has found sanctuary in North Waziristan tribal agency in Pakistan. Islamabad regards both groups as useful in an Afghanistan that will emerge once America fully pulls out of the country.
The other important consideration is the realignment of the Muslim world following the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. While it is hard to predict what will happen to this group of countries, Pakistan, along with Turkey, seems to have decided to bridge differences between the restive world of Shia Islam and the Sunni world, which continues to have in place several authoritarian and highly conservative regimes. Some of President Zardari’s travels are aimed at playing this role.
The author is a former finance minister of Pakistan