The recent publication of an open letter from the Taliban to the American administration signals that American policy in the region is not working.
Yet the escalation of aggressive political posturing and widening differences between Islamabad and Washington is certainly concerning. Instead of applauding the recent democratic transition of power, there has been an intensification of the rhetoric against Pakistan, with the Senate Committee recommending the imposition of sanctions. Threatening to withdraw aid and commence military action against Pakistan risks alienating an important political ally, harming innocent civilians, and engineering a repeat of the events of 1989 by creating economic hardship and reigniting ethnic tensions in the region. Losing an important strategic ally would have direct geopolitical consequences for the West.
America already possesses a disappointing record of abandoning Pakistan when its primary purpose for engagement is over, treating the country as a means to an end rather than a strategic ally. Despite this, Islamabad broadly aligns with Washington’s views on security, energy and investment, and Pakistan has largely supported N.A.T.O. and U.S. policy since its creation. Government forces co-operated with the American military and intelligence services regarding terrorist movements across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, provided information on Osama Bin Laden, and more recently committed to actively combatting the Haqqani network in line with American demands. The U.S., conversely, has failed to reciprocate in times of need: Pakistan’s request during the war with India that America provide arms went unfulfilled, as in 1971 when Washington promised that a frigate would arrive in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, and yet the ship never materialised. Rather than viewing Pakistan as a ‘problem’ to be ‘dealt with’, or as a pawn in an American endgame, the false dichotomy of “West versus Rest” needs to be dismantled and discredited.
Withdrawing trade networks and aid supplies would destabilise the economic situation and propel Pakistan towards other sources of support such as China and Russia – countries inimical to Washington’s long-term aims in the region. This threatens to reduce American influence in Pakistan and in turn encourages the U.S. to strengthen political ties with India, increasing tensions and oppositions within the region. The U.S. is the largest export destination for Pakistani goods and also the largest aid donor to the country, so there is every reason for Pakistan to willingly co-operate with American demands. International co-operation is key to fighting the ‘War on Terror’, and so such a strategy is counterproductive and indeed harmful to Washington, which is ultimately reliant on Pakistan’s support if it is determined to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan. Rather than attempt to politically and economically destabilise Pakistan, America ought to work with Pakistan, rather than against it.
Pakistan is vilified in the American media and predominantly associated in the popular consciousness with negative icons such as Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban. Such demonisation feeds into public anxieties over global Islamisation and religious extremism, anxieties exacerbated when given credence by figures of public authority. Furthermore, claims by the American military and political establishment that Pakistan has sided with Afghanistan over the U.S. in the ‘War on Terror’ in providing a safe harbour for Afghani Taliban fighters hearken back to the false dichotomy of opposition rather than generating a rhetoric of unity. Viewing Pakistan through the lens of Afghanistan portrays Pakistan as a political danger to America, a reductionist view which also externalises the locus of blame for the failure of American forces to make ground in Afghanistan in contrast to their progress in Iraq and Syria. Conversely, little attention is afforded to the basis of Pakistan’s concern over a strong Afghanistan; namely Afghanistan’s aggressive attempts to seize the province of Baluchistan, naturally leading to concerns over Pakistani sovereignty and territorial power.
The provocative rhetoric endorsed by Trump’s administration creates a divisive and reductive narrative which fails to distinguish between the recognised Pakistani state and the true threat of terrorists and sectarians. This undermines the legitimacy of the government through conflation with the Taliban and portrays the nation as one of terrorist sympathisers. Pakistan is not a terrorist nation, but rather a nation suffering from a terrorist insurgency – one which has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of its civilians in a reprisal for siding with the West. It was with the encouragement of the U.S that the Pakistani government engaged with the Taliban as an instrument of foreign policy, and yet the similarities between this strategic alliance and the relationship between the U.S. and the mujahedeen during the Soviet era are conveniently obscured in the American media. This partial profiling of Pakistan contributes to overwhelmingly negative public opinion of the country – a hostility which benefits neither Pakistan nor the U.S., but rather inflames existing tensions and reduces the likelihood of a positive outcome for the region.
In the current political climate, the unnecessarily aggressive stance taken by America on Pakistan is not only concerning but potentially dangerous. Lodged between the three emerging superpowers, China, Russia, and India, Pakistan will never lose its strategic importance in the region – and thus it would be wise not to alienate it. Political leaders on all sides need to promote social and economic development and support rather than punish, and also dismantle the damaging binary of ‘you’re with us or against us’.
(The author is life peer of Britain and human rights leader.)