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American graffiti

The adoption of the Kerry-Lugar Bill marks a dangerous point in Pakistan-US relations at a critical juncture, writes Maleeha Lodhi.

india Updated: Oct 27, 2009 09:50 IST

The setback to Pakistan-US relations over the Kerry-Lugar law could not have come at a more critical — even seminal — moment for the relationship and the region. Pakistan has embarked upon a decisive military operation against militants in South Waziristan. US President Barack Obama is struggling to take crucial decisions on the Afghanistan strategy in which Pakistan will be expected to play a pivotal role.

What should have been a moment to affirm the relationship by a legislative measure that enhanced economic assistance has become a catalyst for discord and turned into a public relations fiasco for Washington. An opportunity to re-calibrate ties was missed in the storm of protest that evidently neither Pakistani nor American officials saw coming.

It is ironic that the original authors of the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act, 2009, Senators (now Vice-President) Joe Biden, John Kerry and Richard Lugar, did not include in their various drafts (and the Senate version adopted on June 24, 2009) the provisions that have provoked so much resentment across the board: among the Pakistani public, opposition parties and the military. It was the House of Representatives’ version spearheaded by Congressman Howard Berman whose intrusive clauses prevailed in the end. Not only did the welter of externally supervised prescriptions defeat the avowed principle of partnership, but they were justifiably seen by most Pakistanis as unacceptable encroachments on the country’s sovereignty. It would be a mistake to judge the political fallout in Pakistan simply in terms of the parliamentary debate coming to an inconclusive end. More important is the negative impression this has left on the public mind.

The government’s damage limitation effort resulted, after the Pakistani foreign minister’s dash to Washington, in a Joint Explanatory Statement issued by the bill’s Congressional sponsors aimed at facilitating an “accurate interpretation of the text”. This persuaded few Pakistanis. Countries are bound by law, not declarations of intent. Moreover, the declaration did not address the core issues of public concern. The willingness of Congressional leaders to issue a statement to assuage opinion in Pakistan does raise an important question. Would timely communication that sensitised Congressional and administration leaders to the expected response in Pakistan have helped to remove and amend the controversial clauses? Why were Pakistani and American officials unable to anticipate these sentiments, thus avoiding damage to the relationship?

Three sets of factors explain the depth of the negative response: the substance of the conditionalities, the tone and language, and a backdrop of decades of mistrust.

The burden of history is well-known. The rollercoaster nature of the relationship — in which Pakistan has lurched from being America’s ‘most allied’ ally to most sanctioned friend — is deeply embedded in public memory. Given the history of legislatively-driven sanctions and cut-offs in economic assistance and military sales, Pakistanis interpret laws that set unwarranted conditions as an echo of this unhappy past.

The crux of objections to the law turns on its intrusive and expansive benchmarking: linking security assistance to a plethora of conditions and obliging the US administration to monitor 15 different areas. Some official spokesmen argued that as these conditions don’t apply to economic assistance, thus criticism is unjustified. This sets up a false dichotomy: conditioning any component of assistance means conditioning relations with the country.

The objections on substance involve the following:

The law mandates the US administration to monitor or secure cooperation from Pakistan in areas ranging from counter-proliferation (which, unlike non-proliferation, implies the employment of force), specified areas of counter-terrorism, and the way military budgets and promotions are made.

The Act sets up permanent benchmarks that will condition not just security assistance but also define the relationship in its other dimensions as well. In fact, this ‘template’ provides a framework within which bilateral relations could henceforth be conducted.

The conditions reinforce the perception that the US views its assistance to Pakistan as an instrument to determine aspects of its internal and external policies.

The conditions will hang like a sword of Damocles over relations much like the Pressler law did.

Under the shadow of these conditions, every action taken by Pakistan against militancy will be perceived in the country as dictated by Washington.

Similarly, the gratuitous language in parts of the law is exceptionable. The most telling comment on this has come from David Ignatius who wrote in the Washington Post that the final bill “had the tone of a diktat” reflecting “a special form of American hubris” and which became “a self-inflicted wound” for Washington. A Wall Street Journal editorial called the bill’s conditions an unwarranted “thumb in the eye of Pakistani national pride”.

The Obama administration would do well to reverse the damage by showing respect and encouraging the US Congress to also respect the sentiments of the Pakistani people and country’s red lines of its sovereignty. On the Pakistani side, there is much that this affair has revealed about government dysfunction as well as its leadership’s non-institutional conduct of the affairs of State and foreign policy, which have become a hallmark of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) administration.

Institutional dysfunction, the intensely personalised conduct of foreign policy, bypassing institutions and not taking parliamentary allies into confidence, all contributed to Islamabad’s flawed engagement with the process leading up to the Kerry-Lugar Bill being adopted. Had this not been the case, the outcome may well have been different.

Maleeha Lodhi was Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US and Britain and former editor of The News, Islamabad

The views expressed by the author are personal