A message for Pakistan that Islamabad fails to see

The world has moved on, but Pakistan - and its ideological fellow traveler, the Taliban - seem to be caught in a regressive time warp from which it is unable to extricate itself, writes Tarun Basu for South Asia Monitor

Tarun Basu Oct 09, 2021
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Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi (C-L) and US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman (C-R) meet at the Foreign Office on Friday (Photo courtesy: DAWN)

The messaging could not have been more explicit.  As she concluded her visit to India with a public conversation in Mumbai, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, known for her plain speaking, said she was going to Pakistan for a “very specific and narrow purpose” and "we don’t see ourselves building a broad relationship with Pakistan".

In a conversation with industrialist Jamshyd Godrej at the Ananta Aspen Centre, a non-partisan trust that promotes value-based leadership and open dialogue, Sherman said in response to a question about her Pakistan visit: “It’s for a very specific and narrow purpose, we don’t see ourselves building a broad relationship with Pakistan. And we have no interest in returning to the days of hyphenated India, Pakistan. That’s not where we are. That’s not where we’re going to be,” 

If Islamabad had any illusions about any different signal from Washington that her visit would give - especially in the context of Pakistan's delusions about its importance vis a vis the new Taliban regime in Kabul, Sherman said her visit was about "what’s going on in Afghanistan", nothing more.

"We all need to be of one mind in the approach to the Taliban. We all need to make sure that we have the capabilities that we need to ensure everybody’s security, including India’s and the US of course. And so, I’m gonna have some very specific conversations,” she said.

Pakistan was, however, thinking differently, hoping that - what Maleeha Lodi, a former Pakistani ambassador to the US and UN called "Pakistan's intrinsic importance"  - ties can shift in a new and more broad-based direction. Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, in fact, told Sherman that Pakistan wants broad-ranging, long-term and stable relations with the US to promote economic cooperation and establish peace in the region. This was a point Qureshi labored during his visit to Washington when he told the Council on Foreign Relations that Islamabad sought a Pakistan-US relationship that is "broad-based & multidimensional, anchored in economic exchange and people to people contacts."

Speaking to the Washington Post in August, Pakistan's National Security Adviser Moeed Yusuf even held out a bait for the "broader" engagement that Islamabad was seeking, saying "US investments in energy, minerals, and infrastructure could potentially herald a new era of cooperation in these regions and buttress peace efforts,"  adding that "coordinated engagement involving Western powers, China, Russia, Middle Eastern countries, and Afghanistan’s immediate neighbors would maximize the chances of realizing our common objectives in Afghanistan.". 

Afghanistan's "immediate neighbors" of course did not include India.

“I’m not asking for any sympathy for Pakistan,” the NSA declared vaingloriously. “I’m thinking in terms of pure US selfish national interests. How does it help to push away a country of this size, stature and power,” he wondered.

No call from Washington

Pakistan has been desperate to break the ice with US President Joe Biden, who has not interacted even once with Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan despite being in office for ten months. After months of wait, Prime Minister Imran Khan has sought to downplay the blunt disregard from President Biden, saying he understood "..the president might be busy". 

The White House has said that it was not aware of any such telephone interaction being planned n the immediate future.

According to Pakistani media, Islamabad is now trying to lobby the White House using the "good offices" of the Pakistani diaspora. In the past also, Pakistan has used informal channels to communicate with US presidents. During Trump's term, Pakistan established direct contact with the US president using his son-in-law and the Saudi crown prince.

The Express Tribune newspaper said that though the White House has not given any clear explanation as to why Biden has continued to avoid a telephone call with Imran Khan, "observers believe it suggests Pakistan, perhaps, is no more a priority for the US".

In what could have rubbed salt into Islamabad’s wound, Biden has not only had multiple telephonic conversations with Pakistan’s regional rivals and neighbor India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but the two leaders have also met in person recently in Washington.

Biden is not new to Pakistan since he has vast experience in dealing with Islamabad, first as head of the influential Senate Foreign Relations Committee and then as Vice President. Observers believe that Biden's prior experience of dealing with Pakistan perhaps is working to Islamabad’s disadvantage.

Rethink in Washington

Nevertheless, Pakistani policymakers consider the country's relationship with the US vital and that is why efforts are still on to stay engaged with Washington.

Pakistan feels that despite the US drawdown, Washington and Islamabad still need to work closely with each other for long-term peace and stability in Afghanistan and is seeking to broaden the relationship by often comparing with the multifaceted ties that the US has with India. Pakistan has long been seeking a civilian nuclear deal on the lines the US has with India, but Washington has been cold to the suggestion.

That there has been a rethinking and recalibration of ties with Pakistan - something which many Congressional leaders have demanded in the wake of the Afghanistan debacle - was clear when Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee that Pakistan has a “multiplicity of interests, (with) some that are in conflict with ours.

“It is one that is involved hedging its bets constantly about the future of Afghanistan, it's one that's involved harboring members of the Taliban....It is one that's also involved in different points (of) cooperation with us on counterterrorism,” Blinken said.

Asked by lawmakers if it is time for Washington to reassess its relationship with Pakistan, Blinken said the administration would soon be doing that.

“This is one of the things we're going to be looking at in the days, and weeks ahead — the role that Pakistan has played over the last 20 years but also the role we would want to see it play in the coming years and what it will take for it to do that,” he said.

And that is exactly what Sherman meant in Mumbai when she declared unambiguously that "we don’t see ourselves building a broad relationship with Pakistan. And we have no interest in returning to the days of hyphenated India, Pakistan."

Reading between the lines

Pakistan may not yet have the ability to read the tea leaves but if it only were to read between the lines of the statements emanating from Washington - with the pointed snub from the top that Islamabad does not figure in Washington's strategic calculus other than the "specific and narrow purpose" of whether it can be a security guarantor in an unstable region - it would perhaps see the necessity of reassessing its foreign policy in tune with 21st-century objectives.

The world has moved on, but Pakistan - and its ideological fellow traveller, the Taliban - seem to be caught in a regressive time warp from which it is unable to extricate itself. Playing a double game with Washington over Afghanistan, sneaking terrorists across the border in Kashmir to kill chemists, teachers, and people who were loved by common people, being called a "brothel house" and a "proxy" for the Taliban by the former Afghan NSA Hamdullah Mohib, and then wondering why Pakistan's requests to the West "were turned down, ignored, or actively resisted"  is a poser that could best be answered by its own leadership.

And when Pakistan Cricket Board Chairman Ramiz Raja says candidly that if the Indian prime minister decided to stop funding the International Cricket Council (ICC), Pakistan cricket would collapse, he seemed to be the only one who understood the global realities, perhaps a tad better than the country's self-destructing 'deep state' and its client government.

(The writer is a former media editor and Editorial Adviser, South Asia Monitor. The views expressed are personal)