Dependence And Distrust

The joint statement issued on the conclusion of Prime Minister Sharif’s recent visit to the US abounds in encouraging phrases, such as ‘enduring partnership’, ‘shared goals’ and ‘mutual interest and respect.’ Such nice words, though they may convey the importance that Washington attaches to its ties with Islamabad, cannot cover up the irritants that have held back bilateral relations.Pak-US relations are driven at once by mutual dependence and distrust. For more than a decade now, the US has needed Pakistan to achieve its foremost national security policy objective: “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al-Qaeda and its affiliates”, as outlined in the national security strategy (NSS) of the Obama administration. Pakistan offers the most economical conduit for transit of cargo to the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf), which is overwhelmingly drawn from the US, in Afghanistan.With the US withdrawal from Afghanistan drawing closer, the importance of Islamabad becomes even greater – reflected in the US decision, announced just before Sharif had landed in Washington, to give the withheld US$1.5 billion military and economic assistance to Pakistan.On its part, Islamabad needs Washington’s assistance to keep the wheels of its economy moving and to fight the militancy. American capital and expertise can be handy in pushing up development efforts in cash-starved Pakistan, particularly in getting out of the energy crisis it faces.This mutual dependence has its flip side as well. When a politically unstable and economically vulnerable country like Pakistan is so important for the national security of a military and economic superpower like the US, the logical result is increased engagement between the two. This engagement can take various forms including playing on economic and security assistance, the incessant pressure to do more, intervention in domestic affairs and – if required – violation of national sovereignty.This happened in 2011, the most difficult year for Pak-US relations in recent times, when the Americans launched an operation on Pakistani soil that killed Osama bin Laden. This was followed by the death of 24 Pakistani troops at the hands of Isaf/Nato forces, ‘inadvertently’ as the assailants put it, prompting Islamabad to cut off supplies to the international forces in Afghanistan for about seven months.The Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2009 (the Kerry-Lugar-Berman law), which commits the US to providing annual economic assistance of $1.5 billion to Pakistan for the period 2010-2014 and possibly for another five years, defines the conditions of American assistance to Pakistan.According to a Congressional Research Service (CRS) paper dated July 1, 2013, the full aid under KLB was disbursed only in 2010. Amounts fell short substantially in the next three years (by $414 million in 2011, by $433 million in 2012, and by $428 million in 2013). Pakistan has also received hefty contribution under the Coalition Support Fund (CSF). The paper puts the total CSF disbursement as of June 2013 at $10.7 billion. Pakistan’s view, however, is that the economic cost of the war on terror is much higher than that.For the Americans economic and security assistance to Pakistan is the means and the fight against terrorism is the end. And where Pakistan is unwilling or unable to act on its own, the Americans step in themselves, for instance by continual drone strikes on suspected militant targets, or by killing Osama.The Americans seem oblivious to Pakistan`s major demands, which include (a) civilian nuclear cooperation similar to that between India and the US; (b) an end to the drone strikes; (c) American mediation to help resolve the Kashmir problem; and (d) enhanced market access to Pakistan`s exports. Interestingly, the joint statement is silent on all these.Regarding the transfer of civil nuclear technology to Pakistan, Washington is of the view that conclusion of an agreement to that effect would confer legitimacy on Islamabad as a nuclear power. True, Washington has a similar agreement with New Delhi, another de facto nuclear power. But then the Americans suspect that Pakistan does not have a clean record in nuclear non-proliferation.On the drone strikes, the US position is that they will continue as long as the border regions of the country provide a sanctuary to foreign militants who carry out cross-border attacks on American troops in Afghanistan.As for preferential market access to Pakistan exports, the proposal seems to be a non-starter. Pakistan’s major exports are textiles and clothing (T&C), a labour-intensive sector, and providing them preferential tariff treatment may cut back on jobs in the American market, particularly at a time when the economy is not in a good shape.Since workers in the T&C sector command a lot of influence as well as sympathy in the US, Americans have not been, and are not likely to be, forthcoming on this demand. Hence, not surprisingly, the bill providing for establishment of the Reconstruction Opportunity Zones (ROZs), which at best will provide only a limited access to Pakistan’s exports of T&C, is gathering dust in Congress.For decades Pakistan has been seeking US mediation to help resolve the Kashmir issue. From Islamabad’s perspective, Washington can be instrumental in getting the relevant UNSC resolutions implemented. It can also prevail upon New Delhi to sort the issue out. How much the US can be effective in getting the Kashmir problem settled to Pakistan’s desire is beside the point. The fact is that it’s not willing to do so.