A clean slate
DURING the July 31 confirmation hearing for US Ambassador-designate to Pakistan Richard Olson, Senator Bob Corker stated that US-Pakistan relations would get a “clean slate” after the American elections in November — regardless of the outcome.
It is hard to imagine a truly clean slate for the two countries given the preponderance of differences on national security. But Corker probably did not mean as much. Rather, he likely meant that being perceived as too forward-leaning on Pakistan during an election year would lead to more opposition attacks on the Obama administration’s foreign policy. A similar dynamic exists in Pakistan for the incumbent Pakistan People’s Party government as it heads into national elections. Without the threat of being kicked out of office, both governments may finally be able to figure it out.
Let’s hope that’s true, but let’s also not be naive. The US and Pakistan have been arguing since 2001 over some of the most vexing security issues either has faced. But what if we removed the issue of safe havens for Al Qaeda and the Taliban from the debate? What if drones, cross-border incidents and Nato routes ceased to exist? What would a clean slate look like then?
Rather than propose oft-repeated strategies like containment or a predictable, issues-focused approach advocating for more aid or public diplomacy, I suggest we look to US ties with Indonesia and Israel — two countries the US occasionally spars with over controversial issues — for some perspective on a new US-Pakistan relationship.
Indonesia faces problems similar to those Pakistan does: terrorism, rising religious intolerance, civil-military imbalance and federal-provincial tensions. The US has an interest in these issues in Indonesia for the same reason it does in Pakistan — they can destabilise a strategically important partner. Indonesia lies along the Malacca Straits, a key international maritime route linking Asian economies to each other as well as to the Persian Gulf. Turmoil along the strait could seriously damage international commerce.
As with Pakistan, the US pressures Indonesia to do more to combat terrorism. Indonesia has endured terrorist attacks on foreigners and Indonesians alike. It has home-grown terrorist organisations. At the same time, Indonesians espouse modern and secular interpretations of Islam similar to the mindset of many Pakistanis. The US pumps millions of development dollars into Indonesia and is often the first and largest responder to humanitarian crises there.
For all their similarities, Indonesia and Pakistan have very different relations with the US. Even though Indonesia faces strong criticism of its human rights record in the US Congress, President Obama visited Indonesia twice, both times touting it as a moderate Muslim democracy. Meanwhile, Pakistan treads dangerously close to pariah status. The notion that terrorism keeps throwing US-Pakistan relations off-kilter no longer holds if we consider that countries like Indonesia face similar predicaments of striking a balance between hedging against the threat of home-grown terrorists and meeting international demands.
US ties with Israel are just as complicated as those with Pakistan. Popular sentiment in the US, bolstered by politically active Jewish and evangelical Christian communities, advocates for unconditional support to Israel. However, Israeli policies, such as a refusal to comprehensively address the question of settlements, work against US interests in the region by stalling the Middle East peace process. But this does not lead to a complete breakdown in relations — Israel continues to receive billions of dollars in US support. The two countries have also built strong diplomatic, military and intelligence relationships that can withstand episodic political crises. This type of relationship shows that the US can sustain strategic ties with independent-minded countries whose policy decisions are often at odds with US interests.
Building a US-Pakistan relationship beyond Afghanistan policy is not an easy task. I am convinced that neither country has a clear vision for what the relationship should be after Nato transfers combat responsibilities to Afghan National Security Forces in December 2014. Such a relationship did once exist. During the Cold War, Pakistan was a self-proclaimed ‘most allied ally’ of the US in combating the spread of communism. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy hosted Pakistani President Ayub Khan at George Washington’s Mt Vernon estate in Virginia as part of a state visit. In his official toast, Khan welcomed a greater American role in Pakistan’s affairs when he stated, “no country in the world has been able to develop or obtain a higher standard of living without some sort of outside assistance.” President John F. Kennedy likewise confirmed to Khan, “there is a link which binds your country and ours all the way across the globe.” The fact that Khan took power in a military coup and that the US used Pakistan in its game against the Soviet Union should not minimise the bottom line: the two countries can find common ground if they have to.
Those days are long gone, but they remind us that the US and Pakistan still have plenty of needs that warrant sustained links. US security interests in Pakistan will outlast the current war in Afghanistan, if for nothing but nuclear proliferation. Furthermore, the US must stay engaged in a region where anti-American sentiment thrives among militants. Pakistan could use a ‘big brother’ during times of economic crisis; China and Saudi Arabia do not always follow through. American companies do not drive relations but several of them enjoy profitability in Pakistan and would like ties to improve. Finally, while the Pakistani-American community is not as politically influential as other diaspora groups, it continues to help educate the US government on advancing US-Pakistan relations. Based on this list alone, the US and Pakistan have enough in common to begin with a clean slate today. Let’s just hope that the two countries won’t always require a fresh set of policymakers to reset their conflicts.
The writer is an analyst at the Eurasia Group and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. She served as director for Pakistan and Afghanistan on the White House National Security Council from 2010 to 2011.