US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton headed a powerful delegation to Pakistan for a two-day visit. The trip to Islamabad was preceded by a stop-over in Afghanistan, and afterward Clinton was headed to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to conclude her Central Asia tour. The high-profile delegation was clearly on a fence-mending mission, with Clinton all smiles during her stay in Pakistan. The friendly overtone belies a struggling US-Pakistan relationship, with the future of Afghanistan at the core.
Clinton’s visit was a busy one, with public audiences given to a carefully selected group of business leaders and students, as well as peer-to-peer government meetings and closed-door sessions with Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari.
The message, by and large, is the same: deal with safe havens along the Afghan border, or we will deal with them for you. However, there was a notable tone of conciliation coming from Clinton, particularly in the public audience sessions.
It appears that one aspect of the trip was to make amends for the comments made by Admiral Mike Mullen about the ISI’s relationship with the Haqqani network. Clinton clearly stated when the question arose that there was ‘no evidence’ to support Mullen’s claims. However, it has been suggested that the issue about the ISI and the Haqqani network is being pursued behind closed doors, to minimize public outcry on both sides about the relationship.
Public and media perceptions were big topics on the agenda in the public audience sessions. Many audience members pointed out that the anti-Americanism witnessed in the Pakistani media and public opinions was being mirrored by a ‘demonize Pakistan’ campaign in the US media, which has hugely affected the public perception in the US of Pakistan’s role in the war on terror and the NATO efforts in Afghanistan.
Clinton was keen to keep the talks focused on ways Pakistan and the US can build their relationship constructively, citing economic cooperation and a “trade not aid” policy as two avenues to pursue going forward. She also expressed admiration for the progress being made regarding normalizing relations with India vis-à-vis Pakistan giving India a Most Favored Nation status and increased talks between the trade and finance ministries of both countries.
Clinton didn’t mention, however, the strategic deal between India and Afghanistan, one which many are calling “US staged,” as the strategic partnership has put Pakistan on edge. The perception of a containment policy towards Pakistan is high, and Clinton did well to navigate away from this subject.
The complex Indo-Pak relations are rapidly taking on a kind of double life, which above all exposes the different visions of Pakistan’s civilian government and it’s military. On the one hand, Pakistan’s military iterate again and again that their one eye is always on India, and on the other hand the government is charging ahead with economic cooperation initiatives, and the tit-for-tat friendship votes at the UN. Last year Pakistan voted for India to receive a seat on the Security Council, Friday, India returns the favor with a vote for Pakistan as a non-permanent member of the Security Council.
However genial the tone of the public audiences, Clinton was still in Islamabad to bang out a message to her Pakistani counterparts: do more about your border region. The three options that seemed to come from the US delegation were either, a) deal with the Haqqani network aggressively, b) we’ll deal with the Haqqani network aggressively for you, whether you like it or not, or c) bring them to negotiations.
The mention of negotiations with the Haqqanis was a surprise to many because the group has been at the center of such contention. However it may be more like lip-service to the Pakistani All Parties Conference message of “give peace a chance” than an actual belief in the Haqqani network being willing to negotiate, or Pakistan being able to bring them into negotiations.
Another party unsure about Pakistan’s ability to get negotiations underway with militant networks came from the so-called “Radio Mullah” Maulana Fazlullah. Fazlullah took the opportunity of the US delegation in Pakistan to declare ‘war’ on Pakistan. The Afghan-based Taliban leader was previously entrenched in the Swat region of northern Pakistan before fleeing in 2009 after a military offensive. He vowed to return to his former stronghold to “get Sharia implemented in the Malakand region and rest of Pakistan.”
What the Talks Accomplished
Press conferences after the high-level talks were held were full of meaningless phrases like “broadened understanding,” which signifies for all intents and purposes no real solutions were agreed upon or problems solved in the meetings. This is more or less expected, given that both sides are quite clear in stating their differences of opinion, and neither seems willing or able to change stance. Pakistan is still averse to enter into military engagement in North Waziristan, and the US still feels adamantly that they should.
This is not to say that nothing has changed due to the two-day visit. There was a clear effort to bring Pakistan back into the fold as far as the Afghan situation is concerned. Previously the US had slighted both Pakistan and Afghanistan by pursuing negotiations with the Taliban independent of both nations. While in Kabul on Wednesday, Clinton reaffirmed that the US wanted to reboot peace talks and negotiations including Afghanistan and Pakistan in the mix. She reiterated that Pakistan ‘must be part of the solution’ in Afghanistan.
On a broader level, it was very evident that the coming election year in the US was weighing on Clinton’s mind. A number of times she made reference to US domestic politics tying her hands in many regards toward Pakistan, particularly in regards to trade and emergency aid for this year’s bout of floods.
The looming presidential election may have played into the decision to placate Pakistan with smiles and an amiable demeanor, as President Obama will need as much calm and good news on the Af-Pak front as he can get during the lead up to the presidential race.
Interestingly, Pakistan appears to be unmoved by the show of goodwill from the Secretary of State. Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani, reportedly asked the US delegation to respect the sentiments present in the All Party Conference resolution that stressed a peaceful solution to the Afghan conflict, through dialogue.
Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar was even more barefaced in outlining the manifest differences between the two countries. In a joint press conference with Clinton, she rebuffed the US assertion, whether official or not, that Pakistan has been knowingly supporting safe havens in its territory: “There is no question of any support by any Pakistani institutions to safe havens in Pakistan,” she said. “Let me be unequivocal and completely clear about that.”
She further added, in a veiled reference to the high cost of the US strategic partnership, that she takes the threat of terrorism “very, very seriously because we live with this threat on a daily basis; we live with this threat on an hourly basis.”
It appears Pakistan has set out to make it plain to the US that it is, after all a sovereign nation with national interests not always congruent to those of the US, which the US must respect.
The Long Road Ahead
Pakistan and the US know that the region at large is as important as Afghanistan itself for securing a lasting peace in Afghanistan. Most importantly, neighbors Iran and Pakistan.
In this light, Pakistan takes on even greater importance for the US, because there is little if any hope for any sort of help from Iran when the US is involved.
This in turn makes Pakistan more nervous, because they know that the US doesn’t feel it can rely on them to do as asked, so the other card they can play on is India. Already the increased Indian involvement in Afghanistan, as mentioned, has ratcheted up concern in Pakistan, despite ongoing efforts to improve relations between the countries.
It is a knife-edge kind of game for Pakistan, because they are attempting to assert themselves, but at the same time they realize that if the US perception about Pakistan deteriorates further, to the point where they no longer feel the relationship is productive then US support for Indian involvement would likely escalate. However, US very well knows that there can be no permanent solution to Afghanistan minus its two neighbors.
As one audience member at the Clinton talks aptly put it, the “US is like a mother-in-law which is just not satisfied with us.”
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