The general view is that — all the bravado notwithstanding — Pakistan is not in a position at present to wean itself away from its dependence on American aid.
Just as Islamabad and Washington were coming out of yet another one of their very many transcontinental spats, came the arrest of Kashmiri American Council (KAC) Director Ghulam Nabi Fai in the U.S. for violating American laws which prohibit people from working for foreign governments without authorisation.
As Dr. Fai had apparently been facing questions about the KAC's relationship with the Pakistan Government since 2007, the timing of his arrest – right in the middle of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to India – has made Islamabad extremely suspicious of American intent.
Since Dr. Fai is alleged to have received funds from the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), his arrest is also being seen as part of the prolonged flexing of muscles between Pakistan's spy agency and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) though things were said to be on the mend after a high-level meeting earlier in the month in Washington.
That ISI Director General Shuja Pasha travelled to Langley for a meeting was in itself billed as an indication of Pakistan's willingness to work with the U.S. after relations dipped to an all-time low following the unilateral raid by the Americans in Abbottabad to take out al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. Lt. Gen. Pasha was the first senior level Pakistani to visit the U.S. after May 2 though half of the U.S. top military and civilian leadership has been trooping in and out of Islamabad all the while.
Lt. Gen. Pasha left for the U.S. two days after the White House spoke about $800-million cut in military aid to Pakistan and in the 10 days between that statement and Dr. Fai's arrest, both sides did some give and take. As is always the case with this relationship, no details were officially forthcoming but the buzz is that Washington may not withhold the green bucks and Islamabad has agreed to allowing 87 CIA operatives to return.
Both sides seemed to stop for air. Even the selective leaks to the American media — showing Pakistan's armed services in poor light — that had become a major irritant for Islamabad dried up for a while. But the pause in the constant sniping at each other's heels through the media was short-lived as Dr. Fai was picked up. Islamabad remained quiet for two days after his arrest and — by default or design — broke its silence just hours after the U.S. Congress rejected an amendment to cut off all assistance to Pakistan.
A demarche was made to the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad to register Pakistan's concerns; particularly the slander campaign against the country. Though no mention was made of Dr. Fai's co-accused, Zaheer Ahmad, the possibility of his presence in Pakistan could open another round of sparring if U.S. insists that Islamabad hand him over. Already, linkages are being drawn of how this case could also be a bid by the U.S. to get Pakistan to release a native doctor who is alleged to have helped the CIA ascertain al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden's presence in Abbottabad.
Blow hot, blow cold has always been the norm in U.S.-Pakistan relations but now it has become almost a weekly feature of this rather curious relationship; plagued by myopia on both sides. Though the timeline of bilateral relations has seen a fair share of ups and downs since the 1950s — including sanctions and total cut in U.S. military assistance — there has never been the kind of anti-Americanism that there is today. And, by extension to anyone who looks Western.
Partly driven by the media, there has been a lot of show of bravado with suggestions like “let us do away with American aid” and “shoot down the drones,” which, according to Pakistan, is counterproductive as they kill innocent people and turn some of their family members into terrorists.
Addressing this narrative in his analysis on Pakistan's internal dynamics and external challenges, former Foreign Minister Inam-ul-Haque asked if Pakistan could afford to confront the U.S. and deal with the isolation that is bound to follow. No, was his answer; adding that even the Islamic world would not stand with Pakistan.
While Washington has made it amply clear that the drone attacks will continue with or without Islamabad's support, Pakistan's leverage because of the transit route it provides for movement of supplies to U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan is also weakening as a bulk of this is being shifted to the Northern Distribution Network (NDN). The NDN is a series of commercially based logistical arrangements connecting the Baltic and Caspian ports with Afghanistan through Russia, Central Asia and the Caucasus.
Barring weapons — which are mostly flown in — much of the supplies and fuel for the ISAF in Afghanistan used to be taken over land through Pakistan after they arrived by ship in Karachi. But an increasing number of attacks on these supply trucks has forced the U.S. and its allies to shift to the NDN. From nearly 70 per cent last year, only 35 per cent of supplies to U.S. troops in Afghanistan goes through Pakistan now and this is expected to go down further before the year is through.
As for the larger issue of U.S. aid, the general view is that — all the bravado notwithstanding — Pakistan is not in a position at present to wean itself away from its dependence on American dollars. “If the aid spigot is suddenly stopped — as many U.S. legislators are threatening and some hawks in Pakistan are eager to court — Pakistan's worst macroeconomic fears may soon become a reality,” wrote S.M. Naseem, former professor of Economics at the Quaid-i-Azam University, in The Dawn recently.
Elaborating on why Pakistan is still aid-dependent, Prof. Naseem told The Hindu: “The economic managers saw the marginal costs of raising foreign aid — presenting Pakistan's case for its needs to the international community — far lower than the cost of mobilising domestic resources, which required bold and painstaking land reforms, educational and taxation reforms and prevention of leakages (including corruption). The ruling elite had a vested interest in not undertaking, or at least deferring them until they became inevitable – and even then without sufficient seriousness or political will.”
And, this ruling elite across all segments of society does not bat an eyelid criticising the U.S. while digging into a burger at the American joint, Hardee's. The irony could not have been more stark. Just the week before the U.S. threatened to cut military aid, Hardee's opened its outlet in Islamabad and people have been queuing up in the fortnight since. Even at 2 a.m., finding a place to sit inside the large three-outlet is like a game of musical chairs.
No one even suggested a token boycott since Hardee's is as American as it can get. In fact, recalls defence analyst, Ayesha Siddiqa: “Even when we attempted to organise a boycott some years ago against U.S. brand names in reaction to the Iraq war, there were few takers.” Mecca-Cola — an alternative inspired by Iran's Zam Zam Cola to American cola brands — did enter the Pakistani market in 2003 but is hardly ever seen in a market flooded with Coke and Pepsi. Even, a locally manufactured cola — Pakola with all the variants — is seldom found.
Even otherwise, the American dream continues to be pursued by youngsters coming from families with some means despite the difficulties in getting a visa. Most well-to-do children are the products of schools following the British ‘O' level and ‘A' level systems of education. The duality is amazing and widespread, said one academic; faced with students, with American or British accents, spewing venom at the West while applying for college admissions in these very countries; not once bothered by the contradiction.
While on the one hand the Pakistani elite has internalised the Western way of life with all its trappings — copied even by the middle class as best they can with their limited resources — there is no equal appreciation for America's adherence to democracy, free speech, freedom of religion.
The U.S., too, while pumping in a lot of money into this country, has failed to invest effort in understanding Pakistani society as was evident from the Embassy's decision to host the first ever “Gay, Lesbian, Bi-sexual and Transgender Pride Celebration” last month in pursuit “of equal rights for all, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.”
This move surprised not just the Pakistanis but the sizable international community present in Islamabad as nothing could have been more out of sync with the prevalent mood in the country and the U.S. of all countries — with its large presence here — should have seen the writing on the wall. The celebration earned the Americans the accusation of spreading “cultural terrorism” and caused further suspicion about the U.S. agenda in Pakistan.