Pakistan and the United States

The deteriorating U.S.-Pakistan ties do not seem to have yet reached a nadir since the assassination of Osama Bin-Laden by US Special Forces last May. They seem to be finding new low points each week.

Pakistan’s foremost journalist, Ahmed Rashid, states that the army of his native land has issued orders to “treat the U.S. as an enemy and attack any planes intruding into its territory…” The killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers as a result of an “errant” NATO attack has not helped matters. Pakistan wants an apology from President Barack Obama, which is not expected to be issued for now. In the meantime, rumors of a planned coup for the ouster of the highly inept Zardari government are hot inside Pakistan despite the denials of General Pervez Kayani, the current army chief.

The domestic politics of Pakistan are so rotten that it needs social movement a la the Arab Awakening (aka the Arab Spring) is necessary to completely overhaul the system. However, the sad reality is that social movements cannot be created; they spring from seemingly minor events like the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, the desperate Tunisian fruit seller. All he wanted was a decent way to earn wages so that he could buy himself a car. His personal humiliation at the hands of the petty bureaucrats of Tunisia resulted in his decision to burn himself alive. The flames that burned his body eventually brought down the Taghoots (dictators) of Tunisia and Libya and the Pharaoh of Egypt.

Manifestations of anger in Pakistan, on the contrary, have the many faces of militant Islam. There are protests supporting the phony blasphemy laws, which are essentially anti-Christian in their focus. No politician or religious leader has the guts to oppose them without fear of being assassinated. There are frequent bombings of Shiite mosques and religious gatherings, which are expressions of Sunni fanaticism. There are suicide attacks on the military, which are also essentially Islamist in origin, but are also puzzling in the sense that Pakistan’s Army has had good-to-very-good ties with the Islamist groups. In fact, if the Army were to adopt a militant posture toward the Islamists – which appears increasingly impossible because its rank and file also have a growing number of staunch supporters of Islamism – then it could score a bloody but decisive victory against those forces. That would also transform Pakistan into a country of political stability and religious moderation.

As one deciphers the aforementioned statement of Rashid – that the Pakistani Army is now treating the United States as an enemy – it appears that these countries are hell-bent on taking divergent paths for reasons of their own. From the US side, there remains an overwhelming state of confusion and rising antipathy toward Pakistan for not toeing the American line. The old adage that Pakistan is heavily influenced by Allah, the Army, and America has the last actor (America) in the process palpably fading, for better or for worse. As long as the Pakistani Army refuses to play the role of the gendarme of American war-related goals in Afghanistan, the yawning gap of differences may turn into the outbreak of periodic hostilities in the form of skirmishes on the Pak-Afghan borders.

From the Pakistani side, the rising spiral of anti-Americanism is also showing its face in the rising popularity of Pakistan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI or justice movement) party, led by former cricket legend Imran Khan. Unlike the staunchly pro-American Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP), the PTI is palpably anti-American. At a time when – as reported by the Pew Research Center – 73 percent of Pakistanis hold an unfavorable view of the United States, and at a time when only 14 percent of them think it was good that Osama Bin Laden was killed, there is virtually no chance of any meaningful rapprochement between Islamabad and Washington.

Since the Pakistani Army has adopted an overall anti-American approach, it is also likely to develop a nexus with the PTI, especially if it captures 20-30 percent of the legislative seats in the next election. However, Imran Khan is not likely to become the next president or prime minister of Pakistan, even though his personal popularity is reported by the Pew survey to be around 68 percent among the Pakistanis.

In order for a US-Pakistani rapprochement to become a reality, the United States has to adopt significant changes in its policies. However, there is no constituency for such a development inside the American political arena, regardless of whether or not Obama wins the next presidential election. If there are no positive overtures from Washington toward Islamabad, no civilian government in Pakistan would dare make a move for the creation of similar overtures. The PPP is a moribund entity, in terms of its ability to govern in the aftermath of “memogate,” in which President Asif Ali Zardari allegedly asked for US help in forestalling an army coup d’etat.

The Army is convinced that the former Pakistani ambassador to United States, Hussein Haqqani, was merely carrying out the wishes of his boss when he allegedly prepared that memo. And the chances of finding the Zardari regime not guilty of that alleged crime in today’s Pakistan are zero.

As Pakistan and the United States continue to drift apart, one has to wonder whether this drift is a permanent one or whether there are likely to be some pleasant surprises in the making whereby the erstwhile partners would succeed in reviving their former ambivalent ties. The resurgence of even ambivalent relations appears considerably better than the present day’s drift toward escalating antagonism between Islamabad and Washington.

(Ehsan Ahrari, Ph.D. is a specialist in great power relations and transnational security. His latest book on great power relations is entitled, The Great Powers and the Hegemon: Strategic Maneuvers. He can be reached at ahrarie@gmail.com. This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it.)