EVERY trite analogy has been attempted. Pakistan and the US are a couple trapped in a bad marriage. Pakistan and the US are emotional friends who cannot quite believe the other has let them down over and over again. Pakistan and the US are frustrated and sullen partners who blame each other for the major failings in their own lives. But perhaps the explanation closest to reality comes from within the world of international relations: Pakistan and the US have diverging interests as defined by their respective national-security establishments, but circumstances dictate that the two countries cannot go their separate ways. Which is why they clash so frequently — another démarche against drone strikes was handed over by the foreign ministry to the US embassy in Islamabad on Thursday, for example — but never quite manage to break off all ties — the Glocs-cum-apology deal took many months to resolve but few ever doubted that a deal would eventually be reached.
For the US, Pakistan, in the ultimate analysis, matters for four reasons: the war in Afghanistan has to be wound down and a modicum of post-war stability established, in which Pakistan will have a major role to play either as facilitator or spoiler; Pakistan has a large Muslim population that is important to America’s relations with the Muslim world; Pakistan has nuclear weapons; and Pakistan has groups of terrorists and militants with anti-West agendas. None of those reasons are positive. There is no promising trade or common security opportunity that the US is hoping to take advantage of through better relations with Pakistan. It is a fear-based relationship — if not handled properly, to what extent can Pakistan undermine US national interests? — and that fear has only grown in recent years. The pragmatism that underpins the approach, however (engagement may not have worked terribly well but isolation of Pakistan will provide no answers either, according to influential policy circles in the US), ensures that fear has not spilled over into irrational behaviour. But as the need for an orderly exit from Afghanistan becomes more pressing, there’s every possibility that fresh tensions between Pakistan and the US will erupt and may not be managed well in the compressed exit timeline.
On the Pakistani side, there is an unspoken consensus across the military and civilian divide that when push comes to shove, Pakistan cannot afford, economically or diplomatically, to cut off ties with the US and by extension with the outside world. While that ought to be the starting point, it is rarely carried through to its logical conclusion: do what is right and necessary to keep Pakistan stable and secure.