President Obama seems to understand Pakistan’s double game on terrorism, but is unwilling to deal with it upfront, at least not at this time

There is always a “good” reason for slipping back to business-as-usual in U.S.-Pakistan relations. This time it is America’s need to buy Pakistan’s cooperation for a safe exit from Afghanistan. And Pakistan’s need to break out of its isolation.

The Obama Administration, as many others before it, has proved that on Pakistan, hope always trumps reality and the “magnificent delusions” endure. The cost, meanwhile, keeps rising.

The invitation to Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to visit Washington was part of a fine orchestration of expectations and delivery. Sudden munificence — $1.16 billion in U.S. aid, to be precise — hitherto withheld because relations had deteriorated alarmingly, was unclogged. Once Mr. Sharif landed, various Cabinet members were lined up to host him for lunch and dinner. Michelle Obama met Kalsoom Sharif for tea, and a poetry reading session at the White House.

Modern and moderate mantra

The leitmotif of the visit: emphasise the positive, ignore the deception, desperately seek areas of common interest and keep it going. At the end of the day, Pakistan, with its expanding arsenal of nuclear weapons and jihadi outfits, can’t be cut loose from the tether of international moorings. The rest is window-dressing.

The two sides succeeded to some extent in shifting the trajectory from the downward spiral of 2011-12 to a more stable one. The visit was designed to support the new mantra of a “modern and moderate” Pakistan. The Americans restarted the Strategic Dialogue with Pakistan, promised to help with the energy sector, and in general agreed to support Mr. Sharif’s “trade, not aid” dream.

Drone strikes

While President Barack Obama was cordial and effusive on the economic front, he didn’t budge on drone strikes, an issue that Mr. Sharif repeatedly complained about during the visit. Apart from regulation nods to finding “constructive ways” to work together that respect “Pakistan’s sovereignty,” Mr. Obama made no promises either to end or even curtail the drone strikes. In other words, if Pakistan can’t deal with terrorists operating from its territory, the U.S. will.

Interestingly, as Mr. Sharif was hyperventilating against drone strikes, the U.S. administration on purpose leaked information to no less a journalist than Bob Woodward of The Washington Post to show how Pakistan’s military and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) secretly approved, endorsed and received regular briefings on drone strikes. The leak was probably also necessitated by a report released by Amnesty International — also timed for Mr. Sharif’s arrival — on civilian deaths caused by drones. The debate on drones is complex, and experts have raised serious questions on claims of civilian casualties.

Mr. Obama seems to understand Pakistan’s double game on terrorism, but is unwilling to deal with it front and centre, at least not at this time. In his public remarks, he indirectly hinted at Pakistan being the centre of most terrorist activity, and in private asked Mr. Sharif why the masterminds of the Mumbai attacks had not been brought to justice, and why the venomous Hafiz Saeed roamed free.

Afghan withdrawal

Merely asking doesn’t amount to much, unless he can link it to tangibles. But he won’t because of 2014 — the date which currently determines all U.S. policy towards Pakistan.

To be sure, this latest U.S.-Pakistan patch-up is yet far from re-establishing a good, working partnership. What the Americans want is the use of Pakistani land routes to bring out their troops and heavy equipment from Afghanistan. What the Pakistanis want is a promise of togetherness after 2014, not a repeat of the 1990s when they felt used and dumped by the Americans.

Mr. Obama has given an assurance of a long-term partnership, but how he plans to build that in the face of extreme hatred of America and all things American in Pakistan remains a question. When 92 per cent of the population hates you, as several Gallup and Pew surveys have shown, it is hard to build relations — or dams. Similarly, more Americans view Pakistan negatively, a factor that will increasingly show up through elected representatives in the U.S. Congress when it comes to approving more aid. How many times can a U.S. administration declare “national security” imperatives and grant waivers to Pakistan over the wishes of the U.S. Congress to keep the money flowing?

Over time, Pakistan has always negotiated with a gun to its head and issued implicit threats — more terrorism, more nukes. And now it has begun saying it is too big to fail. The Americans always accede to the blackmail. Even at this juncture, when they know that Pakistan’s army is not an honest participant in the creation of a stable Afghanistan, they have willingly suspended their disbelief and resumed military aid.

For India

This muddling through only postpones the hard questions about the intentions of Pakistan’s military and the ISI, but doesn’t answer them. Pakistan’s “Deep State” continues to make it extremely difficult for India’s leaders to make real breakthroughs in the face of constant violations of the Line of Control and infiltration. It keeps things simmering on both borders — Afghanistan and India — while extracting its many pounds of flesh from the Americans.

Why the Americans should continue to feed the military beast is unfathomable, especially in the face of all the evidence they themselves have collected since 9/11. Besides, it only undermines the efforts of civilian leaders to gain primacy in the ongoing struggle to bring the military under their control.

The “new,” long-term partnership should be built with civilian leadership as the fulcrum if it is indeed meant to be new. More investments and more access to U.S. markets will help toward that goal and create a possibility — however remote — to reverse the trend toward radicalisation.

(Seema Sirohi is a columnist.)

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