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September 14, 2018

And on flows the river


September 14, 2018

The year 1979 was geopolitically seismic. America’s permanent haunt, Iran, and its sovereign, Raza Shah Pehlavi were overthrown in days by a rare revolution of the modern times. People rebelled, siding with Imam Khomeini in what was to be recognised as the Ayatollahs’ coup.

In the same month and year, another seismic exercise took place when the Soviet Union broke out of the shackles placed by cold-war adversaries by marching into Afghanistan – for centuries a buffer state between the British Crown and the Russian Czars – and occupied it. The West’s geostrategic gambit lay exposed and breached. Pakistan became the frontline in the ensuing American war to stem the Soviet advance, and an alternate to Iran as America’s station of war.

We gladly let ourselves into this service. This was nothing new. We had been an American ally, of our own will, since 1950, and it was natural to us to stand with the Americans and against the Soviet Union. Thus ensued the ‘80s. Pakistan had, after losing half its country to the Indians in an inspired insurrection, decided to choose the nuclear path to thwart war and keep a resurgent India off, just as India had decided to follow the route to deterring China to whom it had lost a war in 1962. Around the mid-80s it largely became known that Pakistan was a screwdriver-turn away from weaponising. India had already exploded a device in 1974. The Americans, as a declared principle of nuclear non-proliferation and surely as a strategic imperative, abhorred nations taking the weapons route. To them Pakistan was errant but their strategic compulsion to thwart the Soviets needed them to turn a blind eye to Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions. The US stemmed the Soviets, and Pakistan went to a turn-away only from weaponising. By the time the Soviets were vanquished, Pakistan was a nuclear power.

The Soviets vacated Afghanistan in February, 1989; the Berlin Wall came down in November the same year, and the process of the Soviet Union’s disintegration began. Pakistan was slapped with the first of the sanctions via the Pressler Amendment in October 1990 after the Soviets were truly out and withered. The Glenn and Symington amendments levied further sanctions in succession and sought further guarantees against Pakistan going nuclear, even though the deed had been done. This was the US catching up on its principles after having trumped them for its more pressing strategic security aims. Come 9/11 and the world changed as did America’s principles. The sanctions went out the window and a waiver to the Glenn, Symington and Pressler sanctions came on September 21, 2001. Pakistan was once again the apple of American eyes.

The period between 1990 and 2001 was the toughest for Pakistan. It not only marked an unstable domestic political environment but was laced with a lacklustre economy and tentative military preparedness under American military sanctions. In the bargain it subsumed a non-democratic government even as it looked the other way on nuclear and other matters such as militancy which had begun to find eminence in the politico-strategic environment of the region.

The war is still on though the 9/11 perpetrators lay buried. Newer evolutions have emerged even as the US continues to find reason to extend its stay beyond the invitation. That makes the strategic state more complex for the region but perhaps just at the right level for the US to continue project its presence. There is little at stake for it and the US mostly derives benefits even if it complains incessantly of how the continuing war denies it the chance to serve peace. In this scenario, its relationship with Pakistan is of choice, downgraded from the state of desperate need. Hence, the cavalier approach.

Secretary Pompeo was only testing waters here. Any hope of a resurrection of a relationship beyond it in the existing strategic environment remains misplaced and unexplained. India was an entirely another matter and most Pakistani analysts remain patently misguided when they descend to comparing the two relationships. With India, the American relationship is a developing story, ascending on the ascent and based on need.

With Pakistan, it is a dying relationship barely held in place on flimsy grounds in Afghanistan. The war there will only stop when the US wants it to; in the meanwhile, there is no harm for it in tasking Pakistan to work hard at making it happen. That keeps everyone busy. Those invested in unrestrained access to China in Pakistan are duly served as well. The carrot of the IMF remains another goodie in the bag in reward for good behaviour. But that’s them, the US. Pakistan is struggling to find other routes to its statehood even as it hopes that it can hold onto an open American window, just in case.

Commentators sought esoteric comparisons to how the two visits of Secretary Pompeo to Pakistan and India had gone. It helps to delve deep in the substance of the Indo-US dialogue to which Pompeo and his cabinet colleague James Mattis went. Such communication and security agreements were signed between Pakistan and the US years back because that is how commonality of equipment can be attained. How it shapes up shall be seen. So what does such state of affairs between the US and Pakistan mean? Precious little. Come another geostrategic cataclysm and all bets are off the superpower’s strangling management of its relations with nations of interest. Till it happens, and one may hope it doesn’t, it is just good to bide time and work on internal resolution of a conflicted domestic environment – without the shadow of the US, as indeed of any other big power. It is about time we gave up on big brothers looking over our shoulders. Now may be that fortuitous moment, de facto.

The foreign policy of a nation is like a river. It must flow along the lay of the land; it changes course over centuries, and if a change is imposed it invariably causes a disruption to the ecology around and may not sustain for too long. If a change is indeed intended to sustain, it must be based around dykes and ramparts strong enough to stand the fury of the natural flow. Yes, the water flow in the river changes seasonally, and when charged additionally with rains and snowmelt, but better plans will still contain it in its banks. When the river flows over and spills beyond the banks it is largely out of failure to contain its fury. Over millennia, though, rivers flow in a continuum, keeping their course.

Relations between nations are like the flow in a river. Sometimes they ebb and flow; at other times, they may only be a stream. How nature will divest a newer paradigm no one can predict, but what remains sure is that soon the streams will give way to a deluge and restore the river to its full glory. It is important to know how to contain such a deluge within its banks. When the flow is lean, though, time is to be bided; the river must keep its flow, even if a stream.

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