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Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Will Pakistan ever develop friendlier ties with US?

Decades of dependence on US financial support have rendered Pakistan a very fragile country, where its economy remains perilous and fails to infuse confidence domestically or abroad. The US has its own issues. This does not leave much space for Pakistan - writes Taj M. Khattak, a retired Vice-admiral of the Pakistan Navy.

In the months following the assumption of office in January 2021, US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, hardly missed an occasion, when the words ‘new world order’ were not mentioned in one tweet or the other. There was some anxiety in Pakistan, as to how, under the Biden administration, inter-state relations, with respect to global security, global economics, human rights, nuclear weapons, sanctions, regime change policies, and tariffs etc, would pan out in the ‘new world order’, which without a shadow of doubt, meant ‘my way or the highway’.

The concern notched up a bit when, after his inauguration, US President Joe Biden, didn’t reach out to former Prime Minister Imran Khan in a courtesy gesture, as he did to some other leaders in the region. Since the disorderly exit of the US from Afghanistan, the US had been openly pointing fingers at Pakistan for the debacle at the hands of the Taliban, disregarding the fact that, had it not been for Pakistan, the exit of US troops could have been far messier.

Pakistan was not unaware of this deep-seated US resentment, but perhaps still expected a ‘decent interval’  before the US found ‘friends with benefits’ inside Pakistan to entertain the idea of regime change against an elected prime minister who was in power courtesy coalition with dodgy political parties yet enjoyed broad-based popularity. This expectation was misplaced as evident from later events resulting in the ouster of Prime Minister Imran Khan.

Read more: Why Imran Khan really matters for Pakistan?

It is not clear whether the Biden administration had factored in all the ‘known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns’ – enigmatic words uttered by former US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, but it is quite clear that the US had not mulled hard enough the ‘unknown unknown’ – the instant overnight public support Imran Khan received from people within the country and diaspora abroad.

Showing the door to the incumbent government or toppling them, is nothing new in Pakistan and has happened many times. But ever since 1979, when BBC’s then Islamabad bureau chief Mark Tully’s despatch, after the hanging of late Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, hit the airwaves, in which he claimed Bhutto’s last words as ‘Oh God I am innocent’, has there been a similar wave of sympathy for Imran Khan, who had asked a few journalists during dying moments of his rule, ‘Is there anyone left who has not turned against me’.

As if similarity with Bhutto’s ouster from power wasn’t enough, these words seared through the hearts of Pakistanis, who know too well their early Islamic history at Karbala and commemorate it with utmost respect every year.

Read more: Iran’s 1953 coup vs. Imran Khan’s ouster

“Real freedom”

The US administration has made its demand on Pakistan very clear – it should shun any ideas about independent foreign policy and remain in the US camp as hitherto fore during last 75 years, distance away from Russia and China and snuff the life out of Pak-China flagship project CPEC. More than half a century ago, Pakistan’s first dictator, Field Marshal Muhammad Ayub Khan, in his book, ‘Friends not Masters’, had devoted two chapters to Foreign Policy and desired to have a relationship of friends with the US and not masters,  but failed.

Foreign Policy is a complex issue in many ways but in other ways, it is not. Consider an ordinary household that ignores its neighborhood and relies on a distant friend who doesn’t show up when needed. Pakistan has suffered heavily due to its policy of ignoring its neighborhood (India being an exception because of the unsettled Kashmir dispute and its opposition to the existence of the Pakistani state).

These disappointments range from the 7th Fleet fable in 1971 to the present day. With every passing day, people are beginning to realize that there is a world beyond the US to reach out to. They earnestly want to break out from this suffocating environment and breath some fresh air. This is where Imran Khan’s slogan of ‘Haqiqi Azadi’ (real freedom) during protests strikes a chord with the swelling ranks of his supporters.

The new government, a coalition of thirteen parties whose ideology and manifestos in some cases are completely opposite to each other, has reasons to pander to Washington, without whose support it couldn’t have come into power. It has not helped Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif to include 25 ministers in his cabinet, some on bail, others absconders, who face serious corruption charges, with he himself topping the list for money laundering offenses.

Read more: PTI mocks Pakistan’s new federal cabinet

Decades of dependence on US financial support have rendered Pakistan a very fragile country, where its economy remains perilous and fails to infuse confidence domestically or abroad. The country is rich in all kinds of resources but unable to break out of the handout mode for a myriad of reasons – prolonged military rule in the past, rampant corruption, and poor governance being foremost. Much to the shame of its people, Pakistan has gone to IMF 22 times since 1958 for a bailout package, which is a reflection of the manner the country has been run.

Our own shortcomings notwithstanding, the common man on the street does not absolve the US and its proxy UK or our predicament. Books like ‘No exit from Pakistan’  by Daniel Seth Markey, further confirm public apprehensions that the US somehow has an interest in keeping Pakistan perpetually in a politically unstable state. The people are hit with double whammy when the western world turns a blind eye to siphoning off easily detectable fund from the country by corrupt Pakistani leaders and once safely parked in their countries,  use FATF to suffocate it financially.

Challenges facing the US

The US has its own issues. Domestically, it is faced with a stagnant economy, unemployment, and crumbling infrastructure. The tail wags the dog when new wars have to be invented to keep its military-industrial empire going. It is careful in choosing its enemies as its population is sensitive to bodybags. It is pumping another 33 billion dollars into the Ukraine war and has introduced suicide drones as it does not want a direct encounter with Russia.

Its global influence is on the decline and suffers from issues like unemployment and crumbling infrastructure. Recently some middle east countries’ rulers did not take phone calls from President Biden, which would have been unthinkable some years ago. It is challenged militarily by Russia and economically by China which is fast closing the gap. Its decision to enter into a strategic partnership with India is insufficient though as that country is unable to handle unarmed hand-to-hand conflict with China – kinetic operations will be a different ball game altogether.

Read more: Can US & its Allies block China’s strong influence in Asia Pacific?

This does not leave much space for Pakistan, which is forced to think that there is a world beyond the US and a dire need to open out. It has presented a kumbaya moment, an indication of suffering, as it were, which historically is rooted in a sincere plea for God’s intervention, by a generation of West Africa trapped in miseries of slavery on islands off South Carolina. These days in political discourse, the phrase is used to dismiss efforts at agreement on complex issues as too simplistic, unrealistic, or optimistic.

Can Pakistan and US hold hands together and sing kumbaya? Probably not, as too much water has flown under the bridge.

The writer is a retired Vice-admiral of the Pakistan Navy. E-mail: tajkhattaj@ymail.com.The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.