Illustration by Reema Siddiqui
Illustration by Reema Siddiqui

The United States is the only real global power. It is arguably the most important country for every country in the world. It is more or less going to stay that way for the rest of the 21st century. After World War II, it produced around half of the world’s gross economic output. It was militarily stronger than the rest of the world put together. American soft power reigned supreme. As Oscar Wilde once observed, “The youth of America is its oldest tradition.” This image of endless hope and opportunity has remained.

However, Pakistan embraced the US when its relative decline had imperceptibly begun. Today it has a fifth of the world’s gross economic output. The recovery and rise of the Soviet Union, the ‘loss’ of China, decolonisation, the US ‘defeat’ in Vietnam, the alienation of post-communist Russia by expanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) towards its borders, the rise and rise of post-Mao China, the rise of neo-liberals in the US who militarised American diplomacy, the current US military frustration in Afghanistan, the rise in global terrorism as a result of American militarism since 9/11, the re-emergence of Russian military and diplomatic power, the rise of Iranian influence in the Middle East, the decline of American soft power, the culmination of this decline in the presidency of Donald Trump — all this provides the strategic background for the rollercoaster relationship between the US and Pakistan. How do these elements determine a shift in Pak-US relations?

Pakistan was born a security state. It has never graduated to a democratic and development state — the only guarantor of long-term security. Kashmir and relations with India were always long-term challenges. But civilian loss of legitimacy and military incompetence led to short-term and self-defeating approaches. 

The government lied to its own people regarding the significance of its security pacts with the US. China was seen as an ‘equaliser’ after the loss of US support. East Pakistan did not leave Pakistan; it was effectively kicked out by discrimination and needless brutality. Nothing was learnt from this unforgivable betrayal. No one was held responsible. The Hamoodur Rahman report was buried until it surfaced in India 40 years later; the Abbottabad Commission Report has been similarly buried. Worse, not one political leader has made a sustained effort to make it public.

Trump has now made a number of accusations against Pakistan. These are actually long-standing ones. Many of them may be unwarranted, exaggerated, distorted, self-serving and simplistic. But some of them are true. General David Petraeus, former CIA chief and military commander in Afghanistan, admits that evidence of Pakistan’s complicity in cross-border assistance to the Taliban and its associates in Afghanistan is not available. But he also says leaders of the Taliban do enjoy sanctuary in Pakistan.

Trump has demanded Pakistan actively help to weaken the Taliban as a condition for a sustainable relationship. Otherwise, US military commanders will be free to consider whatever actions are necessary. China and Russia have defended Pakistan because of the emerging global strategic scenario as a result of US aggressiveness from the Baltic to Ukraine to Syria to Iran to the South China Sea to North Korea. China is deepening its strategic relationship with Pakistan through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and bilateral cooperation because it sees an aggressive India aligning with the US against it.

Pakistan will only carry strategic weight if its rulers begin to be true to the people. Angry and emotional responses are poison for sincere and successful diplomacy. Moreover, political leaders who pander to power centers cannot serve their people and nation. We need a working, non-strategic relationship with the US based on mutual respect and trust.

This was originally published in the Herald's September 2017 issue under the title "Ties that don't bind". To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

The writer is a former member of the Pakistan Foreign Services who has served in the United States, Russia and Germany.