Saturday June 25, 2022

The American question

May 12, 2022

Former prime minister Imran Khan’s incessant mention of an American 'conspiracy' to dislodge his government has caused unease in Washington. But his narrative has caught the imagination of his core support base and resonated with independent voters who have been wary of the historical US role in Pakistan’s internal affairs.

America’s actions for regime change in Iraq, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan and other countries, and recently President Biden’s off-the-cuff remarks of wanting to see President Putin go make it difficult to dismiss Khan’s allegations that the Americans 'conspired' to throw him out in the wilderness. Ambassador Asad Majeed’s cable did quote a US official using “threatening language”, as confirmed by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif. It’s not clear whether the “threatening language” was the ambassador’s own interpretation of a conversation or a direct quote.

The almost immediate thawing of relationship between the two countries after the new government took power and an hour-long telephone conversation between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari have given more talking points to the former prime minister’s propaganda machine.

Pakistan and the US don’t necessarily need a total reset in their relationship. Both have a lot to gain from an incremental normalizing of affairs. Russia’s Ukraine invasion has consumed much of the oxygen in Western capitals. America needs more friends at this critical juncture.

America stands to gain from a pro-Western, stable, and prosperous functional democracy, without interference in its internal affairs. The perception of an overwhelming American influence in Pakistan is a major irritant for many Pakistanis. The US must not demand 'with us or against us' kind of commitment from its allies anymore. China resides in the hearts of Pakistanis for so many reasons. Pakistanis will not compromise their relationship with China for a US which increasingly supports arch-rival India despite its not so Western-friendly foreign policy. A pro-Western Pakistan, the fifth largest nation in the world, and good relations with China serve common interests.

Pakistan remains an influential player in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Pakistan serves another important foreign policy contour for the US to check Russian influence in Afghanistan and the former Soviet states. America is the largest importer of Pakistani goods. Labour costs in India and China are on the rise. US economic interests are best served with a diversity in its sources of labor and imports. It should bring up and cultivate Pakistan’s workforce (trained in English and Western values) for cheap imports and outsourcing. There are vast opportunities for software imports from Pakistan.

Whatever happened to the Reconstruction Opportunity Zones (ROZs) in Pakistan launched in 2009? Acknowledging the shenanigans of past history, the US must enhance its robust engagement with Pakistan by resuming supplies of parts for Pakistan’s aging military hardware (a reason behind Imran Khan’s ill-timed visit to Russia), increasing its engagement with the civil society, and welcoming more Pakistani professionals and students to its shores.

For Pakistan, making a pivot from its Western alliances to make a statement will make matters worse; and the time is not right for this experiment. A long history cannot be undone in so short a time. Critics who give India’s example for its 'independent' foreign policy in this regard tend to forget India’s history in the Non-Alignment Movement, with Russia and the former Soviet bloc. What India is doing vis-a-vis the Ukraine crisis Pakistan must do the same – respect its own history! Pakistanis have to understand and decide that organically their vital interests lie with the West.

Pakistan is a sovereign Muslim and nuclear nation. It must also be a sovereign economic entity. It doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel to achieve financial independence. There are so many success stories within and outside the region. Stop playing cat-and-mouse games on trumped-up corruption charges against each other. The leaders, first and foremost, should focus on establishing economic consensus to take the country out of this morass.

The writer is a Washington-based senior journalist. He tweets @faizrehmanDC and can be reached at: