It was the week of Pak-US relations: the memorandum of understanding governing the movement of Nato supplies through Pakistan was signed; $1.18 billion in Coalition Support Fund reimbursements, held up for over two years, were released; and the new ISI chief went on his maiden trip to Washington to rebuild frayed relations with the CIA. What should we expect in the days ahead? After years of doing business with him, the US had figured out what to expect from the hard-nosed, candid former ISI chief Ahmed Shuja Pasha. Thus, the question on everyone’s mind this week was whether, at a time of great exasperation and caginess towards Pakistan, General Islam would be able to find common ground with American officials, including CIA chief David H Petraeus. He went to the US with a two point agenda: one, pushing the Americans to discontinue their drone programme in the tribal areas and instead upgrade Pakistan’s fleet of F-16 warplanes to do the same job; and two, asking them to help Pakistan in halting cross-border incursions by the Taliban from their bases in Afghanistan. Initial reports suggest that little progress has been made on either demand; certainly, none was expected. Indeed, ahead of this week’s meetings, US officials had already signalled, according to some media reports, that there would be little, if any, change in US counter-terrorism activity in Pakistan and the region.
For starters, it is clear by now that the US isn’t too concerned about the Pakistani pulse when it comes to acting on reliable information about militant targets and using drones which are not just cheap and efficient, but also serve the purpose of sending a message to militants, as well as the American people, that the Obama administration means business. For the Americans, while drones may have their downside – unmanageable public reactions being the worst – they count among the most effective weapons against common enemies of both Pakistan and the US. In sum, there is little chance the US will discontinue the programme. Indeed, in the last few months, even as Pakistan and the US were trying to talk their way back into a working relationship, American drone strikes continued, and were rightfully read in Pakistan as a sign that the Americans did not respect Pakistan’s sovereignty or care much for its fledgling democracy. This attitude will get us nowhere. If the US is really interested in having a meaningful relationship with Pakistan and reducing as far as is possible hiccups that constantly threaten to undermine ties, then a coordinated mechanism on drones has to be worked out in which Pakistan is given a role in the programme. In response, Pakistan must also pledge that it will not disrupt strikes that target known militants. Recently, the American-led coalition also bluntly rebutted an assertion made by the Pakistani ambassador to the US that American forces had done little to stop Taliban militants from using Afghan territory as a springboard for attacks on Pakistani forces – a statement that officials in Islamabad saw as a barb and which left many to conclude that even after months and months of acrimony, the US still hadn’t grasped how cautiously it needed to handle the relationship. But things don’t have to be this way. If Generals Petraeus and Islam are genuinely seeking to rebuild the counter-terrorism relationship, then both have to come to the negotiating table with realistic expectations and a more sympathetic understanding of each other’s interests. A ‘no compromise’ message from either side will only deepen the deadlock and make it easier for hardliners to oppose rapprochement and inflame antagonistic sentiments against the other. Whether we like it or not, we’re all in this together. Let’s try to get along, shall we?