U.S. – Pakistani Negotiations Missing the Key Issues

Washington and Islamabad are doing their respective societies a huge disservice by focusing in their bilateral negotiations on superficial issues such as transit fees for NATO military supplies rather than the core strategic disagreement on which the U.S.-Pakistani relationship is cracking apart. Collapse of the relationship is not inevitable: common ground exists, if the policy-makers can only open their minds to new ways of doing business.

Pakistani-U.S. relations are being sucked into a whirlpool of recriminations over relatively superficial issues, to the harm of both societies. Each side may speak of its own feelings; I will tell you as an American that Americans are angry. Pakistanis say, correctly, that Washington is behaving like a bully. Americans say that Pakistan is playing an immoral double game by working secretly with violent fundamentalists in order to gain influence over Afghanistan.

Each side needs to compromise, but to reach a compromise, each side needs to understand and address the concerns of the other. Pakistan must learn to live with India. Neither the U.S. nor Pakistan should see Afghanistan as a prospective colony. The Pakistani security services need to accept that provoking violent fundamentalism is a bad long-term bet: it scares the U.S. into extremist violence of its own, it harms Afghan society, and it undermines the hopes of all Pakistanis for security and democracy. If Islamabad wants Washington to listen, then Islamabad needs to make a crystal clear argument showing why its support for some radical Afghan factions will not lead to a terrorist attack on the U.S. mainland or a Pakistani-Indian war. That is the rock on which the U.S.-Pakistani alliance is foundering.

Collapse of the relationship is not inevitable: common ground exists, if the policy-makers can only open their minds to new ways of doing business. For Washington, the new way of doing business must be a willingness to move behind the self-defeating focus on military solutions to the radical Islamic political challenge. Frankly, given the problems in Muslim societies across the globe, a bit of political radicalism is the seasoning needed to cook a good political stew. (The same could be said for the U.S., but that is a very different story.) For Islamabad, the new way of doing business is an historic settlement with New Delhi that will free Pakistanis to move beyond the garrison state toward real democracy based on peace with its neighbors. This new approach must include accepting an independent Afghanistan as well as either allowing Waziristan to leave Pakistan or offering Waziristan and the rest of the border regions full participation in Pakistani society and the Pakistani political-economic system with all the implications for autonomy, tax benefits, security, justice, and respect for minority cultural concerns.

Some Americans protest that it is naive to relinquish drone attacks; the dangerously short-sighted mood in the U.S. is to label all Pakistanis as “the enemy.” I suspect the mood in Pakistan is a mirror-image tendency to see all Americans as “the enemy.” I reject these generalizations and instead see as truly naive the assumption that violence is the answer. The enemy is neither “Americans” nor “Pakistanis” but those who choose violence to resolve conflict. The key to a successful dialogue lies not in the details but in focusing on finding a positive-sum compromise that makes the U.S. feel safe, identifies a relatively inclusive political outcome for most if not all Afghan factions, and minimizes Pakistani-Indian proxy conflict in Afghanistan. 

At least, that’s the perspective of one American who finds himself equally frustrated with the negotiating positions of each side. I would be most interested in hearing Pakistani perspectives.