Gulf News, March 8, 2006
The International Herald Tribune headline said it all: “Bush gives India a hug, Pakistan a friendly pat.” President George W. Bush’s recent South Asian trip officially confirmed India’s status as America’s strategic partner.
India got the much coveted civilian nuclear deal, which assures US cooperation in India’s use of nuclear technology to meet the country’s burgeoning demand for energy.
Pakistan’s claim to a similar deal was firmly turned down and although Bush praised General Pervez Musharraf’s efforts in the war against terrorism, he did not say or do anything else to cheer either Musharraf or the rest of official Pakistan.
Successive military leaders in Pakistan have sought an alliance with the United States as a means of overcoming the power imbalance between India and Pakistan as well as to push for Pakistan’s case over Jammu and Kashmir. Musharraf is no exception.
The Pakistani generals’ formula for befriending the US is simple. Pakistan offers strategic cooperation to the US in addressing its immediate policy concern: containing Soviet communism during the Cold War; providing Afghan Mujahideen a base of operations in the war to bleed the Soviets; and, since 9/11, intelligence sharing and military action against Al Qaida. In return, they invariably seek to advance their own goal of “containing” India.
Had Bush said something more on Kashmir, Musharraf could have used it as a face-saver. The American president decided, however, to stick to his script and avoided saying anything that Musharraf could describe as an offer of American mediation over Kashmir.
As expected, Bush did not press Musharraf very hard on the question of restoring democracy, at least publicly. But he did not leave the issue unaddressed either. In expressing the hope that “democracy is Pakistan’s future”, Bush refuted Musharraf’s assertions that Pakistan is already on the road to democracy.
Bush’s expressed expectation of a free and fair parliamentary election in 2007 was an implicit acknowledgement of the fact that electoral exercises organised under Musharraf so far were not above board.
Realistically speaking, there was little reason for Pakistani officials to expect anything different. But Pakistan’s military rulers have a long history of deluding themselves and building unrealistic hopes.
The US had given no indication that a civilian nuclear deal would be available to Pakistan. In fact, Pakistan had been told long before the Bush visit not to expect such a deal. The demand for a civilian nuclear agreement was not based on demonstrated energy needs or prior consultation between Pakistan and the US. It was a case of asking to be treated exactly as the US deals with India.
The most memorable statement of Bush’s South Asian visit came at its end when he explained why India and Pakistan could not be treated identically. “Pakistan and India are different countries with different needs and different histories,” Bush said at his joint press conference with Musharraf.
Almost every American leader and official dealing with the two countries has had that thought but the hesitation in stating it has often fed unrealistic expectations among Pakistanis.
The visible disappointment in Pakistan over Bush’s visit is not the result of American unreliability, as several Pakistani commentators are claiming. It is the consequence of the persistence of strategic myopia within the Pakistani establishment.
Bush deserves credit for being straight-forward in his statements throughout his South Asia trip. He carefully and scrupulously avoided feeding false hopes in Pakistan.
But Pakistanis must now come to terms with the fundamental flaw in their strategic paradigm instead of periodically lashing out at others, especially the US.
A nation should not define its interests solely in terms of competing with a much larger neighbour. Pakistan has already suffered enough as a result of its efforts to use periodic alliances with the US to challenge India.
This might be the moment to consider a new strategic vision, one which takes advantage of close Indo-US ties to forge a Pakistani partnership simultaneously with India and the United States.
Instead of acting as the prickliest nation in South Asia, Pakistan could then be the friend of its immediate neighbours as well as of the world’s sole superpower. Pursuit of economic prosperity and political stability under democracy, rather than the “containment” or “cutting down to size” of India would be a better strategic goal for Pakistan.
Musharraf has already indicated that he is not considering any changes in the old Pakistani worldview. The day before Bush’s arrival in Pakistan, Musharraf told an audience of military officers at Islamabad’s National Defence College that he was keeping “Pakistan’s strategic options open” to deal with the new Indo-US partnership.
“My recent trip to China was part of my efforts in that direction,” he was reported as saying.
That could mean several more years of confrontation with India and meddling in Afghanistan.