In a recent op-ed published by the New York Times, former US national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley and I argued for a US approach to Pakistan that centred on understanding Pakistan’s strategic anxieties. We argued that encouraging an India-Pakistan dialogue, including on how to coexist in Afghanistan, and efforts for a political settlement in Afghanistan offer the best hope for the US to get greater Pakistani support in Afghanistan. Expectedly, a fair share of American policy readers didn’t bite. These voices want the US to punish Pakistan to force a change in its attitude. Of course, on the Pakistani side, you can always trust some to read too much into everything: for many here, the op-ed was a camouflaged attempt to blame Pakistan for sheltering Afghan Taliban and legitimise India’s primacy in South Asia. But neither of these reactions worried me as much as some of the more complimentary feedback from Pakistani readers. I say complimentary only because they vindicated the thrust of our argument by confirming that those entrusted to make decisions for this country remain fixated on India. The views echoed a simple fact: Pakistan won’t budge until it feels its worries about India’s clout in Afghanistan are being addressed.
These responses also exposed just how blinded the Pakistani strategic mind is to its own follies. The angst towards the US is deep. Ultimately, Washington, Kabul, and New Delhi are seen as the root of the problem. Many feel their anti-Pakistan agenda is so set there’s no point in trying to engage constructively. They want Pakistan to look to China instead. When I expressed my disappointment, I bewildered them. The op-ed was an argument intended for the US policy enclave. It echoed my view that the more commonly touted US policy options like sanctioning Pakistan are not likely to deliver the desired results for the US. I also believe some of what is being talked about in US policy circles could rupture the relationship altogether and destabilise Pakistan. As important as it is for US policymakers to recognise that no policy that ignores Pakistan’s fixation on India will succeed, this in no way justifies Pakistan’s outlook. So now, to the Pakistani policymaker.
Pakistan’s India-centred strategic paradigm is one of the biggest drags on the country’s progress. I have contended Pakistan must invert its traditional refrain of “politics before economics” with India by transforming itself into a transit and investment hub for the region. This is just about the only way Pakistan can retain a solid negotiating hand with India in the long term. The status quo is untenable because it isn’t working. Second, while I accept the unfairness of looking at Pakistan from a purely Afghan lens, as many in the US do, far more important for Pakistani policymakers is to recognise what their policies may have done to reinforce this. In a post-9/11 world where proxies that espouse Islamist ideologies are out of fashion, extremist elements have continued to use Pakistani soil to attack targets elsewhere. The bottom line is that the presence of externally focused extremist groups in Pakistan has done more to harm to its international standing than anything else.
Finally, let’s stop pretending that China offers a substitute to the US. Yes, the US needs Pakistan. But the opposite is also true. The US is the largest export market; it, and not China, wields influence over the international financial institutions Pakistan depends heavily on. The military benefits greatly from its relationship with the Pentagon and wants it to continue. Unfortunately, none of this will be heeded. But neither is my view on US policy going to wrest the anti-Pakistan momentum in Washington. The US and Pakistan are on a collision course that will hurt both, and the region. Pakistan should not wait for the US to prevent it.
By arrangement with Dawn...