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Tactical vs strategic

Pakistan-US relations over the decades have been transactional, transitional and tactical. With India, it can be safely said that US relations are strategic. That defines the trend of engagement in this love-triangle. Tactical is need based and transitional; strategic is long-serving and sustaining.

When the 1960s were ending, ties between Pakistan and the US had already begun to weaken. The need for a relationship was still driving an engagement but the returns to Pakistan of such association were minimal. Case in point was the 1965 war where Pakistan felt that by equating India and Pakistan on the same keel the US had become complicit in favouring India since a suspension of military supplies to both countries meant that Pakistan was the principal sufferer. India hardly had any American military equipment.

Soon after, Pakistan plunged into a burgeoning relationship with Communist China. This was to become a strategic shift which has since informed an ever strengthening strategic engagement between the two Asian neighbours. China was a patently communist entity and its accosting meant that Pakistan had breached the imposed cauldron of its purely Western-oriented foreign policy in a challenge to the US. Pakistan’s then president, Ayub Khan, came out with an accompanying monograph ‘Friends, not Masters’, lamenting how the US had begun to dominate a relationship premised on mutual respect and friendly togetherness. Despite the intensity which had marked such fraternity earlier, the period hence was one of jaded lament and gradual cooling off.

In the early 1970s Yahya Khan did try and ameliorate some of the bad blood by creating for the US an opportunity to engage with China, but such rapprochement could only last for so much. The 1971 American tilt in favour of Pakistan during a war with India was perhaps a return of sorts which began and finished with diplomatic signaling only. Perhaps it also saved some more blushes for a vanquished Pakistan after the loss of its eastern wing. Zulfikar Bhutto’s era followed, marked by a broken relationship between the two erstwhile allies of Cento and Seato. This was the end of a fairy-tale friendship between Pakistan and the US. Whatever followed was wholly without pretensions.

But then 1979 happened – a year of such tumult that it shook the moorings of a geopolitical order that had sustained since the Second WW. The Soviet Union broke through the safety cordon imposed by Nato on the USSR’s southern boundaries which soon threatened its dream of reaching the warm waters of the Arabian Sea. Turkey, Iran and Pakistan were an arc of safety which Capitalist America and its allies had woven against any such Soviet ambition, of which Afghanistan was a cushioning buffer. The Soviet Union breached that safety by conquering Afghanistan. At the same time, long-term ally US ally Raza Shah Pehalvi of Iran was overthrown and an Islamic Revolution ensued, which forever changed the matrix of US defence in the north of the Arabian Sea. Iran was out of American ambit with every possibility that it could now serve as a facilitator of sorts in enabling an expanded Soviet influence. But that would come only if the Soviets in Afghanistan found solid footing.

The Americans made it their mission to disable the USSR from reaching that level of comfort in Afghanistan. That meant that America again needed Pakistan to be that recourse. Ziaul Haq, who had replaced Bhutto in an earlier coup, carved his own list of receivables for services rendered on that count. Another sporadic fling between the US and Pakistan thus took root. It was consensual and each knew what they were after. Pakistan achieved its immediate and medium-term aims by completing its nuclear programme while the US was able to strategically hurt the Soviet Union which soon dissolved later.

This state of unquestioned global supremacy of the US reflected in its Pressler, Symington and Brown Amendments towards Pakistan which bound the American administrations to certify a conformal behaviour by Pakistan towards American policies, failing which Pakistan was ostracised from the American orbit. This in the interregnum defined US-Pak relations in the 1990s. Till of course 9/11 happened and all the amendments were binned in favour of an opportune accommodation of Pakistan to serve the emergent US interests in the region. Strategy be damned, tactical has ruled the roost – it seems for a long time now.

With India, the trajectory of US relations has been the reverse. Always in the opposite camp, except for the period leading to India’s 1962 war with China and a little after, India was too anti-capitalist for American comfort. Nehru had locked them in this mould through a socialist economic order. It was also too entrenched in the Soviet camp while proclaiming to be non-aligned. It thus remained only peripheral to US policy. China, a lower league entity, was only a secondary concern. India thus never surfaced too high on America’s priority list.

This began to change in the 1980s when Rajiv Gandhi opened up the Indian economy to the outside world. Its sheer size and population meant the prospects were enormous. The world wished to tap in and see if India could play footsie on other counts too. That is when the US first began to think strategically about India. Under Vajpayee, Congress and now Modi, India’s drift towards openness was situated in response to the overwhelming needs of its impoverished economy. This is when the honeybees began congregating over Delhi. This is also when the US could get its foot in and keep the door open for it to begin Waltzing with the more amenable Delhi. Transactional alright but the fruits of the labour were plenty and deep and sustaining.

Together, India’s animosity and the American disinterest with Pakistan make for a synergetic push to frame Pakistan in the watch-list of the FATF. Both have differing objectives. India likes to pin Hafiz Saeed and his setup on Pakistan and seek from it punitive measures against them while the US thinks it has enough ammunition to force Pakistan to take on the Haqqanis. To Pakistan such resort at others’ bidding amounts to complicating its own internal timeline of dealing with unrest based around religious extremism and regional geopolitics. Pakistan has barely survived such incarceration at Paris this week with only a limited parole. It has its work cut out in a combustible regional play of forces and will need to repair the ruptures inside and out and minimise its own vulnerabilities, to begin with.

It also helps to preempt the adversity attached to such framing by remedial steps needed to placate the FATF. While the US may not be desperate to court Pakistan it is the latter which will seek US support in most IFIs to tide over some very nasty economic challenges in the days ahead. That increases America’s space and reduces Pakistan’s in this rapidly fraying relationship. Will the US push Pakistan to the point of acting against groups like the Haqqanis? That will kick up sufficient firestorm to scare CPEC away but will surely embroil Pakistan in yet another iteration of internecine war; enough to debilitate it further in the face of mounting challenges. The slips are many and only a focused treatment of our maladies can obviate some very obvious pain and injury.

Email: shhzdchdhry@yahoo.com

Shahzad Chaudhry, "Tactical vs strategic," The News. 2018-02-23.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Foreign policy , Military supplies , Nuclear programme , Diplomacy , Economy , Politics , PM Modi , Hafiz Saeed , Pakistan , India , FATF , USSR