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- Wednesday, December 26, 2012 - From Print Edition

As 2012 draws to a close, it is time to reflect on what may transpire in Pakistan’s foreign relations next year, especially those that are most critical. The US remains our most crucial partner because of the potential good or harm it can bring to the country.

In terms of potential benefit or damage, the Pak-India relationship is only second to the Islamabad-Washington equation. In this manner of ranking, high stakes in Afghanistan make it the third most important country for Pakistan.

Despite the odium the US attracts in Pakistan these days, it was a newborn nation’s quest for economic and military security that led to a special relationship with the premier global power. Washington waited for the opportune moment to conclude that it made good sense to enlist Pakistan along Turkey and Iran in the cordon sanitaire around the Soviet Union. The tight embrace began to fray with the Indo-China war in 1962.

In his book Memoirs of a Bystander, an eminent Pakistani diplomat, Iqbal Akhund narrates how Washington’s decision to throw its weight behind India, warning Pakistan at the same time not to take advantage of the situation, served as a wake-up call to Pakistan’s leadership about the tenuous nature of the Pak-US alliance.

Pakistan tried to balance the loss of US commitment by further consolidating its ties with China and seeking rapprochement with the Soviet Union. These diplomatic manoeuvres, rather than bringing a change in US support for India, exasperated Washington against Pakistan. By the time the Pakistan-India confrontation of 1965 led to the seventeen-day war in September of that year, the US had grown so weary of South Asia’s power struggle that it let the Soviet Union take the lead in hosting the post-war reconciliation meeting in Tashkent.

This flashback is to recall the first cycle of Pak-US engagement followed by estrangement. There would be other cycles in later decades. US expectations of building India as a bulwark against China in the 1960s were not fulfilled. Our ties with Washington recovered and Pakistan served as a bridge between the US and China.

US behaviour towards Pakistan during Bhutto’s rule and the early years of Zia varied from indifference to suspicion. Till the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, Carter was the most unsympathetic US president Pakistan had to deal with. Having lost its linchpin in Tehran, Washington had no choice but to re-engage Pakistan to resist Moscow’s audacious moves. History would repeat itself two decades later, after the US was humbled in an asymmetric attack cryptically called 9/11.

Today, the ‘off again, on again’ Pak-US partnership is at yet another critical juncture. There are indications that the two sides have learnt from the past and are acting in a more mature way to address the tough challenges that lie ahead. But which way they will be guided by their ‘genetic’ memory of the relationship, is still a moot point.

Henry Kissinger had once lamented America’s lack of patience in coping with difficult international challenges. The important question now is whether fighting its longest war has made America sufficiently patient to see through the transition to national reconciliation in Afghanistan. This task looks beyond the capacity of the Afghans left on their own or to Afghanistan’s neighbours. The military draw-down from Afghanistan should be accompanied by sustained diplomatic engagement to ensure that the 12-year military effort would not be followed by abandonment.

Pakistan should be an important partner of the US in the coming phase. There is repeated emphasis by the US administration, military command and think tank community on Pakistan’s help to America for accomplishing the latter’s mission in Afghanistan. Somehow, there is no mention of Pakistan’s legitimate concerns about developments in Afghanistan and how the US could try to accommodate those. It must be understood that, as the US and allied forces leave Afghanistan, the Taliban’s need for sanctuaries outside would come down. America should start depending less on anti-Pakistan public diplomacy and seriously try to address more serious issues.

The other relationship that merits serious reflection is that with our big neighbour and traditional adversary, India. The accounts one heard from Pakistani participants at the Track II meeting in New Delhi were indeed sobering. Renewing invitations to India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to visit Pakistan is an exercise in politeness but nothing more. Pakistan must review its public diplomacy which gives the impression that we are desperate for dialogue with India.

The Indian establishment has decided not to concede diplomatic space to Pakistan. Today, the reason advanced is over Mumbai. But if that were taken out of the equation, the goalpost would likely be shifted to something else. Decades ago, Indira Gandhi had told a foreign visitor that an adversarial relationship with Pakistan is good for India’s national unity.

Things have changed since then but not to the extent where Pakistan could be assigned a new role in India’s grand design. So be it. Let us play the role of adversary honestly and stop acting otherwise. Deep in our hearts, this is a role we can continue to play without difficulty. But we need not be in a confrontational mode with India.

Let us keep our briefcases ready and the powder dry. And no more visits from our side at the presidential or prime ministerial levels, please – till the Indians reciprocate.

The writer is a former ambassador.

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