Newsline Magazine interviews former Ambassador to the US, Sherry Rehman on the Pak-US relationship.
Is there any truth to the commonly held perception that Pakistan has a love-hate relationship with the US?
Relationships with superpowers are anything but static. The love-hate binary is an intellectually lazy construct, because the relationship cannot be characterised as one profiled to doom or disengagement.
Pakistan is neither a lost love nor a hidden wife and all such metaphors should be thrown out the window. Bilateral relations between two states cannot and should not be reduced to sound bytes like this. States have interests, not irreversible enmities or love-fests.
What have been the major irritants in this relationship?
Some of the enduring irritants are related to unrealistic expectations from both sides. The problems are also often embedded in the public narratives that have evolved over the years. Pakistan, for instance, would be better served if we stopped looking for grand strategic bargains, which I think is a shift our civilian governments have made, but this has not filtered down to the public level. America would also do the bilateral relationship a favour if it looked at its Afghanistan challenge squarely in the eye, and acknowledged the complex issue of Afghan security and stability, which should not be made a responsibility or burden for Islamabad alone as the US exits Afghanistan.
On a specific level, of course, drone attacks constitute a major challenge for Pakistan’s civilian governments, as they find these politically unsustainable, while the US cannot erase the memory of finding OBL in Abbotabad, and so on. These issues fuel the infamous “trust deficit” which is always referenced in current discourse.
What were the challenges you faced in your tenure and how did you manoeuvre your way through the minefield: Osama bin Laden, Shakil Afridi, Afia Siddiqi, drones and Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan?
The bilateral relationship was facing its worst low when I was yanked out of parliament and sent in to deal with the crisis. After the multiple setbacks of 2011, the Raymond Davis and OBL episodes, the martyrdom of our soldiers at Salala literally spun the relationship into an extraordinary tailspin.
It was a huge diplomatic as well as personal challenge, because it entailed stepping straight into the eye of a strategic storm between the two countries, right after the Memogate and Salala crises.
My first job was to steady the potential decline, and to get both sides to start understanding what the other needed. The hardest part was the first six months, when I had to shuttle back and forth between Washington and Islamabad to explain how we could best unlock the latest and toughest knot.
In Islamabad this was the first time that any major foreign policy decision, not rhetoric, actually went to parliament, which is crucial for actions rooted in public consent. Washington was not used to waiting for Pakistan’s democracy to speak, and it took months of working days that blurred into nights in the winter months to explain why Islamabad was taking its time for the resumption of opening our highways to the NATO pullout from Afghanistan, and to advocate empathy to key Congressional leaders. And that the need for an apology for Salala was not my own hobby horse, but was required by the system, across the policy board, including parliament, to open the doors to the resumption of full ties.
Representing Pakistan’s interests, and explaining its multi-dimensional texture, was my only agenda, and I am grateful I had good American interlocutors in the State Department, White House and Pentagon, who did appreciate how we felt after months of constant meetings, but conveying that across the board, especially to Congress was a real daily challenge, even for them.
OBL’s presence on Pakistan’s soil is not something that Americans will likely forget, even though the Obama Administration learnt to put it aside in the interests of working through joint challenges. We often had to face tough words from Congress and the Senate over it, as well as on Shakeel Afridi, who was seen as the hero who led to OBL’s capture by many of his champions in Congress.
The drone issue was actually the toughest to navigate, because every time it was raised publicly in the US, or some international NGO would question the covert warfare drones allowed America to wage, we would see a strategically placed article in the mainstream DC press, which would allege, without any semblance of proof, that Pakistani governments, even after Musharraf’s regime, were somehow engaged in a “wink and nod policy,” whereas the reality was very different.
The reality was that it was the first issue I was asked to raise as ambassador in my high-level meetings, and it was the first item on our agenda back home in the highest-level internal causcuses we would hold whenever I was called back to Islamabad for consultations during the post-Salala crisis phase.
As the ambassador, my job was to be the first line of defence for Pakistan in the United States, so it was not for me to parse the efficacy of drones as an instrument that destroys terrorist targets. But it certainly was my job to insist that strikes need to go down and be completely stopped, especially given that the Americans would admit first privately and then publicly, that the core of Al Qaeda, which constituted their High Value Target list, has been degraded, dismantled and destroyed in our part of the world with Pakistan’s help.
It is generally believed that:
a) The Republicans are more supportive of Pakistan than the Democrats.
b) All US governments are more comfortable working with military governments in Pakistan (Generals Ayub, Zia and Musharraf).
Do you agree?
Things have changed in the US. However, I will not deny that historically all administrations have found it easier to work with military governments in Pakistan, because it gives them one window to deal with, and also because a great deal of the issues they prioritised have been security-centric. Today, though, Pakistan’s transition to democracy, with one government gracefully exiting for another after general elections and a full term, is also being appreciated in the US, across the board.
In the context of the war on terror in Pakistan, the US has continued to ask Pakistan to do more and more. Is there any understanding or realisation of what Pakistan itself has suffered in the war or terror?
There was very little understanding of that when I got there, and it’s a hard dynamic to shift, particularly when Pakistan was routinely in the crosshairs of alleged terror plots and headlines. Among other things, which included constant Congressional meetings, engaging key members of the American media, and public speaking, I started sending a weekly “Pakistan Casualty Count” to Congress, and key players, which did immediately register a point. It jolted quite a few offices out of the old narrative, but we still have a long way to go. The “do more” mantra will continue, albeit with more courtesy, as long as we too remain victims of our own terrorists. But in DC, it was important to stay away from the ‘victim narrative’ in reminding mainstream America that Pakistan has lost more than 50,000 of its own in this war on terror and is still under fire, because the point almost always registered with interlocutors and general audiences. Most of the time, they are fed a daily diet of one side of the picture, that is the nature of the international media.
Also, if one really wants to make a difference, this cannot be a one-wo/man job. One has to utilise the resources of senior officials in the embassy, empower them for outreach, give them a consistent message to carry, and let Brand Pakistan get some air. Our DCM, for instance, would team up with officials and go out on the Hill to brief staffers and media, and meet business leaders; this made a big difference. We did the same with the huge Pak-US community, reaching out via newsletters and phone conferences every month.
This government, as also previous ones, have talked of trade not aid from the US. Given the situation in Pakistan, do you think this is a realistic demand?
It certainly is. There is no appetite for an FTA ( Free Trade Agreement) in Congress, even if the administration pushes it, but there is certainly room for tariff changes for our exports to access their markets. And if we improve our security situation, there is a robust line of big US investors in the pipeline, ready to come in.
The search for sustained common ground like economic interests may seem like an unambitious or unglamorous goal, but believe me, it is the one that does the best service to Pakistan, and addresses our need to redefine our international role as a responsible and peace-mongering, democratic, global player.
In his book Shooting for a Century, Stephen Cohen maintains that the US policy apparatus for South Asia, has been severely deficient and dysfunctional. Do you agree? Also that the US policy of dehyphenation in the context of India and Pakistan has worked in India’s favour. Should Pakistan be feeling insecure about the US’s growing links with India?
Pakistan should certainly be looking to building peace constituencies with India and Afghanistan through very challenging times, and civilian governments do recognise that a pivot to the region should be their first priority. The US’s strategic embrace of India has to do with its own management of Pacific power plays, in the context of the whole China-Asia rising phenomenon, not as some rejection of Pakistan, which is unfortunately seen as a function of Afghan stability in a broad matrix.
But we have to understand that Indian diasporas bring some of the world’s biggest wealth-based business opportunities to the US-India equation, and Indian investment in the knowledge economy has yielded serious dividends in the American search for markets as well as equity. The Indian military’s expanding defence hardware shopping list, as the largest importer of arms in the world now, has also ensured a steep leverage gradient with the powerful mil-bus complex in the US. So while some of us talk about the inequity of the US-India nuclear deal there are very few takers for this conversation in American strategic circles.
In your view, does the US administration see Pakistan as a help or hindrance on the road to peace in Afghanistan?
The US undoubtedly sees Pakistan as a front-runner in the Afghan peace process. Pakistan, under its last civilian government, has tried very hard to shed the notion of aiming for “strategic depth” in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is for the Afghans to run, and for them to govern. This should be the strategic priority across the board in Pakistan’s corridors of power. Importantly, this is also the view of the majority of 180 million people of Pakistan. So we need to continue with that vision, but the problem, of course, still won’t go away. Who will secure, finance, stabilise and pacify Afghanistan? Pakistan certainly cannot carry that burden, nor should it seek to.
For the last five years, all offices in Islamabad have moved to assure Kabul of their neutrality. The idea was to transmit the sense that Pakistan does not want to play favourites, and yes, no one is invested in promoting the Taliban or any other power in Kabul. This has to be a long-drawn out Afghan decision.
We told the Afghans and Americans we will support their political reconciliation if that is what they want, we will support their 1.5 million refugees again until 2015, and we will support their elections, and assist development. But we should repeatedly emphasise that we can’t be the guarantors of a peaceful endgame as US/NATO forces transit out of Afghanistan, leaving in many places a security vacuum that has already begun to roil our eastern border and tribal areas.
The Americans will be leaving Afghanistan next year. Do you fear, as most Pakistanis do, that Pakistan will suffer the same fate, or worse, that it did post-1989, following the end of the Cold War?
The 2014 timeline poses challenges for the whole region, but Pakistan’s stakes in Afghan stability are vital. The long porous border that we share with Afghanistan makes Westphalian notions of security very difficult for us, as the border often becomes a revolving door for non-state actors that have developed the skills and acquired resources to stalemate, if not defeat the world’s largest international coalition of forces in Afghanistan. So yes, the short answer is, I would be worried, very worried about the escalated nature of the fallout on Pakistan if a security transition in Afghanistan is full of holes. Which it already is, and we see the playout already.
Does Pakistan have any friends on Capitol Hill?
Yes, we do, although after the OBL incident, they are few and far between. We had also not been leveraging our best assets in the Pak-US equation, which is the Pakistani-American community. I noticed that a sustained outreach campaign to this group ensured that they rallied very quickly to our call. They can’t change the game, that only happens when core realities shift on the ground, but they do form an invaluable bridge to the political heavyweights on the Hill, on the Beltway, and in the administration.
Which areas do Pakistan and the US need to particularly work in to develop a measure of trust?
Pakistan’s relationship with the US will change for a stabler, more normal trajectory, if we leverage that friendship in ways that are broad-based and focused on long-term futures. Our short and medium-term goals are too loaded with outliers and events not within either’s control, so we should seek to move beyond a security-based relationship. I think that is a stated mutual goal we should build very seriously on. Trust will also flow when there is less to take from each other, and more to build on together.
Ostensibly Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif failed to secure any concessions, any promises from the US President on his trip to the US: drones, Kashmir, Afia Siddiqi. Both agreed to disagree. Would that be a correct assessment?
One, this is the nature of the current relationship. At least it is mature enough to sustain disagreement. Two, why should any head of government only meet with his/her counterpart to obtain concessions? Three, we need to resolve outstanding bilateral issues with respect and grace, and that will happen faster when we set our own house in order. Four, we need to stop imagining that Americans like subtext. American culture prefers and respects plain talk. You don’t expect, you don’t ask, you don’t get.
If the Pakistan government makes any headway in its talks with the Taliban, do you see the Americans halting the drone attacks?
The drone attacks will likely continue as long as the US intel apparatus continues to identify High and Medium Value Targets in FATA through their own sources, satellite surveillance and otherwise. Or they decide the political costs are not worth the strikes any more. It will be an internally-driven decision, whenever it comes. We should hope for better outcomes, state our case as best as we can, and as I keep saying, get our own counter-terrorism plan in order, whatever that may be.
Was there ever a golden period in Pak-US relations?
We were all children then, but the image of Jackie Kennedy sweeping through the streets, pelted by rose petals and “I Love America” flags on a visit to Pakistan appears to resonate as a high period in the relationship. But I doubt very much that there was ever a “golden period”. It certainly functioned at a different level of innocence, if you like, with the Americans building signature projects like the Tarbela dam, and Pakistani students flocking to American Centers for study-aids and scholarships.
I told them in public lectures, that while I grew up in a Pakistan where US universities actively encouraged Pakistani students to apply for scholarship, and I went to Smith College on one, today’s young Pakistanis are unable to see the US from any other lens than the one they see refracted on television every time there is a drone attack. They see drones, unfortunately, as the projection of American power, not the Fulbright scholarships America invests in, with Pakistan now as their largest country programme. This promotes a dangerous cognitive disconnect between the two people, because the American side does not see drones unloading missiles at all, (it’s been for long, a largely covert programme in the US), while the Pakistani people see its ally raining missiles on 70 television screens. The future of foreign policy lies in societies, not just states, pressing for change and engagement, or its obverse.