In a recent op-ed published by the New York Times, former US national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley and I argued for a US approach to Pakistan that centred on understanding Pakistan’s strategic anxieties. We argued that encouraging an India-Pakistan dialogue, including on how to coexist in Afghanistan, and efforts for a political settlement in Afghanistan offer the best hope for the US to get greater Pakistani support in Afghanistan.
Expectedly, a fair share of American policy readers didn’t bite. These voices much rather see the US punish Pakistan to coerce a change in its attitude. Of course, on the Pakistani side, you can always trust some to read too much into everything: for many here, the op-ed was a camouflaged attempt to blame Pakistan for sheltering the Afghan Taliban and legitimise India’s primacy in South Asia.
But neither of these reactions worried me as much as some of the more complimentary feedback from Pakistani readers — especially those who matter in the policy arena.
I say complimentary only because they vindicated the thrust of our argument by confirming that those entrusted to make decisions for this country remain fixated on India. The views represented genuine concern, some truth, and quite a bit of conspiracy theory, all of it echoing a simple fact: Pakistan won’t budge until it feels its worries about India’s clout in Afghanistan are being addressed.
An approach that is India-centric is holding back progress.
These responses also exposed just how blinded the Pakistani strategic mind is to its own follies. The angst towards the US is deep. Ultimately, Washington, Kabul, and Delhi are seen as the root of the problem. Many feel their anti-Pakistan agenda is so set there’s no point in trying to engage constructively. They want Pakistan to look to China instead. When I expressed my disappointment, I bewildered them. They were complimenting me for my argument, but I was taking issue. Here is why.
The op-ed was an argument intended for the US policy enclave. It echoed my view that the more commonly touted US policy options like sanctioning Pakistan are not likely to deliver the desired results for the US. I also believe some of what is being talked about in US policy circles could rupture the bilateral relationship altogether and destabilise Pakistan, creating an even bigger problem for the US in the long run.
But this view should have offered no solace to Pakistani decision-makers.
As important as it is for US policymakers to recognise that no policy that ignores Pakistan’s fixation on India will succeed, this in no way justifies Pakistan’s outlook.
So now, to the Pakistani policymaker.
Pakistan’s India-centred strategic paradigm is one of the biggest drags on the country’s progress. Data to prove this is indisputable. I have contended Pakistan must invert its traditional refrain of ‘politics before economics’ with India by transforming itself into a transit and investment hub for the region. This is just about the only way Pakistan can retain a solid negotiating hand with India in the long term while furthering its (and the region’s) human welfare goals. The status quo is untenable because it isn’t working — differential with India is growing by the day. Also, no one in the international community, including China, accepts the logic of Pakistan’s approach anymore.
Second, while I accept the unfairness of looking at Pakistan from a purely Afghan lens, as many in the US do, far more important for Pakistani policymakers is to recognise what their policies may have done to reinforce this. In a post-9/11 world where proxies that espouse Islamist ideologies are out of fashion, extremist elements have continued to use Pakistani soil to attack targets elsewhere.
This is not the place to unpack the finer debates and disagreements on the realities surrounding this issue. The bottom line is that the presence of externally focused extremist groups in Pakistan has done more to harm to its international standing than anything else. And it promises to continue bringing grief if things don’t change.
Finally, let’s stop pretending that China offers a substitute to the US. No good can come out of goading a US policy machinery already frustrated with Pakistan. Even the Chinese have been saying this.
Yes, the US needs Pakistan. But the opposite is also true. The US is the largest export market; it, and not China, wields influence over the international financial institutions Pakistan depends heavily on. The military benefits greatly from its relationship with the Pentagon and wants it to continue.
Unfortunately, none of this is will be heeded. But neither is my view on US policy going to wrest the anti-Pakistan momentum in Washington. The US and Pakistan are on a collision course that will hurt both, and the region. Pakistan should not wait for the US to prevent it.