US must better understand Pakistan’s interests

US must better understand Pakistan’s interests


One of the assertions made with increasing frequency among Pakistani strategists, including those with purely civilian credentials, is that US interests in the South Asia region are now strategically aligned with India, rather than Pakistan. This distinction is not a light one. What Pakistanis are actually saying is that, for the first time since their country was founded in 1947, the priority for US strategic interests in South Asia is not Islamabad, or its vaunted military, but India and its juggernaut economy. And, because America has chosen to tie a strategic knot with India — the source of strategic torment for Pakistan throughout its existence — Pakistanis can no longer look at the US as a reliable or trustworthy partner. When assessing the value and impact of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Islamabad this week, it is essential to remember this wider context. 

Whilst longer term shifts in the strategic tectonic plates do take place, two more immediate issues bedevil the Pakistan-US relationship. The first is the fate of America’s 17-year-old war in Afghanistan, and the second is Pakistan’s fiscal dependence on foreign nations. 

America’s war in Afghanistan began with the righteous global rage following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, it floundered the moment George W. Bush attacked Iraq, and it was catastrophically mismanaged by Barack Obama in 2009, when he chose to listen to neither his own instincts to wind down the war, nor to the voices of counter-insurgency advocates within the US national security community to expand it enough to achieve a decisive victory. 

Today, Afghanistan is a throbbing contradiction. On one hand, it offers dramatically more hope than it did in 2001, with a generation of young, technologically savvy, global Afghans that refuse to accept violence and war as a way of life. On the other, most Afghan elders offer nothing but the same tribalism, nepotism, corruption and myopia that have defined three generations of warlords and self-interested charlatans. No country has a bigger interest in the trajectory of Afghanistan’s contradictions than Pakistan. But, rather than address Pakistan’s concerns in the country, the American leadership seeks to coerce Islamabad to align with its interests. This strategy has failed to disabuse Pakistan of its strategic convictions (or limitations) for almost two decades. It is unlikely to succeed now. 

Yet, concurrent and adjacent to Pakistan’s perceived strategic obduracy lies its fiscal realities. For what will be the fifth time this century, Pakistan is likely to request an International Monetary Fund bailout to shore up its foreign reserves, which have been depleted because Pakistan consumes more than it makes, and has billions of dollars in infrastructure that needs to be built every year. More importantly, Pakistan’s voracious appetite is not about to go on a diet any time soon. This is a country with well over 120 million young people: Hungry, impatient, demanding young people that want the same things young people everywhere want, and they want them not tomorrow or next year, but now. 

To serve the demands of its impatient, pro-reform, jobs and entitlements-seeking youth, Pakistan needs more than just another IMF program. No matter how much personal austerity Pakistan’s new prime minister practices, the economic needs of the country demand a set of long-term relationships (built on trade, rather than security concerns) with all the great world powers, including the US, which afford it the ability to continue to grow.

It may not be possible to coerce Pakistan’s new government to abandon the country’s perceived strategic interests, but it is very much in Pakistan’s interest to pursue economic growth.

Mosharraf Zaidi

Often, even those with a sympathetic view of Pakistan point to this contradiction in its strategic positioning against India, and its obvious economic vulnerability, and demand that Pakistan essentially abandons its insistence on securing itself from both real and perceived threats. Conversely, many Pakistani strategists have now accepted, in principal, a state of permanent separation from the US — with the conviction that other world powers, in particular China and to a lesser extent Russia, might help underwrite the insatiable appetite of Pakistan’s millions of ambitious youths. 

In the age of Modi, Brexit and Trump, such binaries have become valuable political currency. Some of the histrionics adopted by Pakistan’s excitable foreign minister in the run up to Pompeo’s visit were in keeping with these new norms of political discourse, but serious observers of the region and these dynamics need not adopt them. 

Pakistan has endured almost 40 years of an Afghanistan at war. Continued instability over the border certainly does not help Pakistan, but it also does not represent an existential threat, as perhaps it did before 2014, when Islamabad took decisive military action to find and destroy terrorist networks that emerged from America’s war in Afghanistan. Perhaps most importantly, Pakistan may not have the kind of control over actors and events in Afghanistan that is often attributed to it. In short, the fate of America’s war in Afghanistan is not as urgent for Pakistan as it is for President Donald Trump.

What is urgent for Pakistan is its ability to pay for badly-needed imports of machinery and equipment that will help build the 21st century infrastructure that its young women and men deserve. Pakistan’s economy has not grown nearly as fast as China’s or India’s, yet the strategic appetite of the country has had to keep pace with the growing power of these large world players (and the economic appetite of the country has had to keep pace with its growing population of young people). 

It may not be possible to coerce Pakistan’s new government to abandon the country’s perceived strategic interests, but it is very much in Pakistan’s interest to pursue economic growth. This is the reason why China enjoys almost unlimited access and influence in Pakistan, and why the president of the US has been reduced to tweeting threats about cutting military assistance. 

The history of Pakistan-US relations and the stature of the world’s sole superpower merit a better performance from America in understanding and managing Pakistan’s short and long-term interests. Sadly, none of the readouts from Pompeo’s visit suggest that such an improvement is imminent.

"Mosharraf Zaidi is a public policy professional. Twitter: @mosharrafzaidi"

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