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August 31, 2018
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Hi, Secretary Pompeo

Opinion

August 31, 2018

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These three words will define how the US and Pakistan develop their relationship in the foreseeable future. The structural domain is already established around the evolving geopolitics of the region and the run of the ongoing seventeen-year-old war but how this engagement proceeds within the bounded parameters will make the progress so much easier or so much more difficult.

Let me explain. Naya Pakistan’s prime minister isn’t willing to be so easily cowed down; he’s been a fighter and prides himself on that. He also thinks that previous national leaderships have been selling the country too cheap to the Americans. He also isn’t one to shy away from calling a spade a spade, which actually means telling the Americans off. He wasn’t treated well when he visited the US in previous years and was hounded on entry; surely that rankles.

But that was then, when IK wasn’t the government and not charged with any responsibility than fighting political foes he detested for – among other reasons – being lackeys of the powerful (read: the US). Nobody ever questioned China – either they thought it wasn’t as powerful, or the Chinese just did it so nicely. But how we and our leadership face the US does matter in perceptions; such has been the popular rancour. IK may be swayed by such easy considerations. Mush, for one, hasn’t been able to recover from the ignominy of appearing weak before the Americans.

Secretary Pompeo – only half his own man and half Trump’s obedient mouthpiece – will be similarly invested with preconceived notions of Pakistan around what the media has fed over the waning years of the US-Pakistan relationship, and how the absence of an alternate voice in Washington has let this narrative of deviousness become a reality. For Pompeo, he will be dealing with a dubious nation, hardly a partner anymore, with duality at the core of its policy in Afghanistan. That, were it to become a more honest partner and not nourish the Taliban in pursuance of its own strategic aims even when it propounds peace, American and Afghan problems could be so much lesser. President Donald Trump, has already denigrated Pakistan in no subtle words and how such characterisation haunts the entire Afghan conundrum. With this mindset, Pompeo is on his way to size the new man up and see if he will be willing to play ball.

Such combustibility should only need a flash. Yet Prime Minister Imran Khan’s shoulders are greatly more weighed now. His country is in the zone of flirting with another IMF referral; even with all his economic czars striving their hardest to find another route to survival, the IMF looms large. This in the backdrop of Secy Pompeo’s unsheathed warning to the IMF to not engage too eagerly with Pakistan. Yet this window will need to be kept open.

In his preparatory briefings for a visit, which still seems to be on despite the not-so-ordinary to and fro on the content of what went on between the secretary and IK in their first telephonic exchange, the responsible offices will tell him the criticality of US support to his armed forces to retain the credibility of total deterrence. The Foreign Office will weigh in with their usual mantra of mending what’s broke and keeping what’s not, hopefully. Decimating decades of investment in a mutual relationship, despite a horrendous cost at times, it remains prudent diplomacy to salvage what may still be of value in an interdependent world. Relationships are built, not broken. Where a repair is needed, it must be done; that is the essence of diplomacy.

Pakistan’s foreign minister declared it worth hearing the US out and in, knowing their needs – right words and convincing first steps. Flexibility in diplomacy is the alchemy of making things happen. Hardened or imposed exteriors are its nemesis. Larger purpose must subsume popular gratification. Both the PM and his equally perception-conscious FM will need to imbibe these few basic principles of diplomacy as they feel their way through the hardest first week in office as Pompeo arrives to test waters with the new government.

Honesty will always help when dealing with the US on Afghanistan. The path to peace must have a clearly spelled roadmap, prepared in consultation with all stakeholders and laying out responsibilities for all players. We must state upfront to the Americans what we as a nation will do and what the US and others must do for peace in Afghanistan. And then stick to it. Pompeo will arrive with a one-way task; we should hand him a four-or-a-five way checklist of actions.

What else will Pompeo be interested in? It helps to know that Pakistan exists at the lowest rung of America’s hierarchical ladder of global interests at this moment in history. And it has little to do with Pakistan’s proclaimed duplicity in Afghanistan, and a lot more to do with the absence of Pakistan’s role in US’ current reading of the global political strategy. Pakistanis love to consider CPEC and their nuclear capability irksome to the Americans, but that is too myopic from a superpower’s frame of concerns.

Afghanistan is barely an irritant, from which the US would like to now beat retreat – though it does force them to keep some links alive with Pakistan. Tomorrow may be different with Turkey or Iran or the Middle-East erupting, and Pakistan thrust right in the middle of American calculus. So to be left out of the US’ roving gaze is by no means perennial. For now, the US wants to leave Afghanistan and would appreciate Pakistan’s help. Till the next need, US-Pakistan relations will be held with this flimsiest of pretensions. In such times making nice helps. And subtle gains away from the more focal politico-strategic sphere, as in the economy, is a handy yet useful separation.

Pakistan errs when it places itself in the Indian prism while perceiving American intentions. US relations with India are entirely on their own steam. When the US mentions Hafiz Saeed or his LeT as something which Pakistan must manage better, they fill their empty plate of issues with Pakistan by doing another colleague’s bidding. In return, the US flags China to the Indians. This becomes mutually convenient serving their more immediate agendas. Come the crunch, this act of Samaritan good will be the first to be jettisoned as Pakistan comes handy in another American need.

Making nice is the key, whether it is China with Pakistan or Pakistan with the US. We may not go to the IMF but must keep the window to the IMF open – just in case. So the three words will matter in how they are phrased, intoned and delivered. A more equanimous salutation delivered with a gravitas may serve the mantle of the PM but it just might become counterproductive to longer-term gains.

If from an eager host to an awaited partner – even if only in peace – it shall deliver different dividends. Turning someone off is the easiest. If, however, the salutation and the contents of the meet remain fuzzy, Secretary Pompeo may be seeking another meeting in Rawalpindi.

Email: [email protected]

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