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Reset to client status?

All the euphoria in Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) circles after Imran Khan’s recent visit to the US may prove premature, misplaced over-optimism, and failure to discern the true meaning or essence of the so-called ‘reset’ in US-Pakistan ties. No one in recent years has described this relationship as anything but ‘transactional’, meaning the US has wooed and inundated Pakistan with its largesse when it needed the latter to promote or achieve its interests, but ‘dumped’ it when the immediate need was over.

Actually, this mutual lack of understanding stems from the divergent goals each country has pursued, without anyone on either side being willing to state this evident truth clearly and without ambivalence. When Pakistan joined SEATO and CENTO in 1955, it became part of the US-led international anti-communist coalition. But that was, as later events proved, only half of Pakistan’sexpectations from choosing the west in the Cold War era. Soon after independence, Pakistan was embroiled in a short, sharp war with India over Kashmir. The mindset that emerged after this 1947-8 episode of hostilities was that India was not reconciled to the concept of Pakistan as an independent state and would therefore spare no effort to destroy it. The western anti-communist alliance ensured military and financial aid to Pakistan, which the latter considered critical to its defence buildup and security. However, there was a gap between Pakistan’s understanding (or hope) from the western alliance and what the US expected from Pakistan.

Between 1954 and 1965, Pakistan and India fitfully held talks on the Kashmir issue, but nothing came of these rounds. In 1965, military dictator Ayub Khan decided to try and upset the regional apple cart by infiltrating fighters into Indian Held Kashmir (IHK) with the expectation that the Kashmiri people, seething under New Delhi’s jackboot, would spontaneously welcome and join the insurgents in a fight for freedom. Unfortunately, those hopes turned out to be a complete misreading of the mood of the Kashmiri masses at that point. When the expected uprising did not occur, both militaries were inexorably sucked into an all-out war.

That is when Pakistan was confronted with the real worth (or lack of it) of the western alliance. Sticking to the letter of the alliance agreement, the US imposed an arms embargo on both countries, although it was obvious this would only affect Pakistan since India then was aligned with the Soviet Union. This perceived ‘betrayal’ accelerated Pakistan’s desire to explore alternatives to its close embrace of the west, including closer ties with China, which had not only fallen out with its communist compatriot the Soviet Union, but fought a border war with India over disputed territory in 1962 in which India was humiliated. Arguably, the inconclusive 1965 war hastened the Ayub regime’s departure from power by 1968-69 under the impact of a seven-month long countrywide agitation against his dictatorial rule.

During the East Pakistan crisis in 1971, the US paid lip service to helping Pakistan, but hardly lifted a finger to help Islamabad prevent the fall of Dhaka. When India exploded a nuclear device in 1974, Pakistan under Bhutto embarked on a necessarily secret programme to develop a nuclear deterrent. Bhutto suffered a horrible fate at the hands of the hangman’s noose, amongst other reasons for defying the US on Pakistan’s development of a nuclear deterrent.

The biggest irony is that after Pakistan had critically assisted the west in defeating the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, once the Soviets departed in 1989, Pakistan was sanctioned for its clandestine nuclear weapons programme. This too felt like ‘betrayal’. Given this barely-below-the-surface feeling in Pakistan that the US had time and again used Pakistan for its own ends when it suited it, and thrown it away like a used tissue when the goal had been met, it should not surprise us that when the US-led west turned away from Afghanistan in 1989 to focus on its Cold War victory over the Soviet Union-led socialist bloc in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union itself, leaving Pakistan to deal with the continuing fallout of the Afghan war, the rulers of the time thought they had found a solution in their own interests to the unending civil war between the triumphant Mujahideen groups after the fall of the Najib communist regime. The Taliban were launched to overcome the fractious, interminable and intractable intra-Mujahideen civil war. The rest, as they say, is history.

The US consistently saw the Pakistani military as the largest, most efficient Muslim army in the region and beyond. Over the years, relations between the Pentagon and GHQ were maintained even through the worst crises in relations between Washington and Islamabad. That ‘parallel’ track was still in existence and evident by the makeup and meetings of our top brass with their counterparts in Washington when accompanying Imran Khan on his Washington yatra. But this military-to-military conduit could not change the fundamental divergence in understanding and goals of the two sides in the last 65 years. The US saw Pakistan, particularly its military (which it helped build up), as a more than useful ally in the regional and global struggle against communism and the threat of anti-imperialist revolution. Pakistan on the other hand hoped this western help would extend to its conflict with India. That is where the divergence was inherently located. The years that followed have been a see-saw of burgeoning and waning relations.

As to the current conjuncture, the cooings in the White House aside, how the US behaves in future will crucially depend on whether Pakistan, as it is promising, succeeds in helping pull the US’s chestnuts out of the Afghan fire. That outcome will ultimately determine whether the present (restored) bonhomie will continue and grow into US largesse once again flowing into Pakistani coffers or once again regress into alienation and friction, with their concomitant fallout. Since the Afghan settlement process is complicated, lengthy and uncertain in terms of eventual results, don’t hold your breath.

E-mail: rashed.rahman1@gmail.com

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Rashed Rahman, "Reset to client status?," Business Recorder. 2019-07-30.
Keywords: Political science , Cold war era , Financial aid , Military dictator , Infiltrating fighters , Nuclear deterrent , Afghan settlement , Muslim army