By Abrahim Shah
A hearing in the United States Congress a few weeks ago titled “Pakistan: Friend or Foe?” saw several congressmen unleash an unprecedented and vituperative salvo against Pakistan, labeling our administration “repressive” and accusing our government of “manipulating American chumps”. The intense polemic has given voice to the frustration many in the US feel towards Pakistan, but perhaps more alarmingly, it threatens to unbalance the civil-military balance in Pakistan by providing our army the ideal opportunity to shore up its own support amongst a charged, anti-American populace.
The Congressional hearing’s invective is symptomatic of a broader isolation Pakistan is facing on the global stage. Coming a mere fortnight after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s accusations against Pakistan at a NATO conference in Warsaw, the hearing ties in with our hostility with India and our cold relations with Iran and Afghanistan, and is a clear indictment of our failed foreign policy. This status of global pariah, coupled with Pakistan’s internal struggle against radicalism and the ongoing Zarb-i-Azb operation show how Pakistan is struggling to deal with threats, both from inside the border, and from external forces.
This existence or appearance of a threat is what has always defined Pakistan’s civil-military relationship since our inception, as the army has always used the presence of an existential threat to Pakistan’s integrity to perpetuate its own image, and assert itself over parliament. This phenomenon has been extant since 1947 when, as famed historian Ayesha Jalal points out, the prevalence of the Cold War and the fear of India’s conventional might eventually led to Pakistan becoming a highly ‘militarized’ state which relied on funding from external powers- predominantly the United States- to augment its military capabilities and thus tilt the civil-military balance in favor of the army.
The Congressional hearing’s polemic, therefore, only adds to the litany of issues Pakistan is currently facing, and gives the perfect opportunity to the army’s Goebbels-esque propaganda machine to further perpetuate the idea of an existential threat to our state and to shore up its own influence vis-à-vis PM Nawaz’s already parlous premiership by stating that the US is forsaking Pakistan in favor of India.
The repercussions of the hearing, thus, have two drawbacks for our country. First, the already precarious civil-military balance is bound to shift even more in favor of the army as the public demands a strong rebuttal to the Congress’s scathing remarks which have hurt national pride, and second-the idea of ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan will gain even more traction as the Pakistani army fears a rupture with the United States. This strategic depth refers to the army’s strategy of ‘good Taliban’ who can serve as pawns in the proxy battle with India for control in Afghanistan which the army sees as inevitable once the US withdraws from the country. The hearing, then, by laying the groundwork for a potential isolation of Pakistan is threatening to bring about the exact scenario it sees as anathema to the US-increased support of the Taliban by the Pakistani army. This support is naturally harmful to the US and to Pakistan, but our army feels this is necessary to ensure a cooperative regime in Afghanistan, especially if the US leaves Pakistan out in the cold-which it has already done once when the Soviet regime fell in Afghanistan.
Bellicose rhetoric like the Congressional hearing is thus, not only harmful to US interests in the region, but also threatens to derail the tenuous paradigm of Pakistan’s civil-military relationship. To vitiate the negative drawbacks from the hearing, the incumbent US government needs to come closer to PM Nawaz’s government and guarantee its support to Pakistan’s democratic leadership. Vocal support must be followed up by actions which will mitigate the mistrust plaguing US-Pakistani ties, and this can only be done if the US involves Pakistan in its counter-terrorism strategy in Afghanistan, and categorically calls the Durand line the internationally recognized border. Anything less than that will further fuel hatred and discontent in ties between the two strategic allies, and further enervate the PML-N’s beleaguered tenure.
It is highly hypocritical of the US Congress to advocate for Baloch “independence and self-determination from a repressive regime” at a time when it is cozying up to the Indian government which is blatantly subjugating occupied Kashmir and its citizens. Alas, as the aftermath of The Hague’s verdict on the South China Sea dispute shows, realpolitik always trumps legal and moral exigencies, and the Congress hearing’s clear bias is a form of realpolitik which the Pakistani government must contend with, especially as the US enters election season. It is no wonder then, that Raza Rabbani labeled the hearing ‘appalling’ and our foreign ministry was quick to mollify tensions with the US, but the indubitable truth is that Pakistan is very much seen as a foe in major circles in Washington, and the Pakistani army is ready to capitalize on that.