Time for Pakistan to get tough with the US

On the one hand, we are a nuclear power. But on the other, a massive debt trap has greatly compromised our sovereignty

Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get. Or so a wise man once said. Indeed, the fictional Forrest Gump could just as easily have been talking about the present state of the Pak-US bilateral relationship.

After all, ties between the two sides are at an all time low following President Donald Trump’s now infamous tweet in which he accused this country of harbouring terrorists. But be that as it may, it remains imperative that the government focus on the domestic turmoil that has gripped Pakistan in the absence of strong and capable leadership.

Even our political institutions have been plunged into crisis. And it appears that Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi is a mere pawn in the hands of Nawaz Sharif, who still holds the real power in his party. Yet the latter seems not to have come to terms with the Supreme Court’s decision to forever disqualify him from public life. For how else to explain the sight of a man who has thrice held the premiership wooing the thirty-two-year old Saudi Crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman? Or the fact that upon his return to Pakistan Nawaz was almost roaring against the Army as well as the superior judiciary?

All of which brings us to the following question: who, in reality, is currently exercising power here in Pakistan? Though it seems that we will have to wait until after this year’s general elections to find out. Trump has, for his part, has threatened Iran and North Korea several times and much more ferociously than he has ever berated this country.

Indeed, he has even gone as far as warning Pyongyang that it risks being destroyed by Washington. Yet instead of becoming intimidated, Kim Jong-unsimply dismissed the US president as being a madman. Maybe we should follow this example. But before we can even consider this we should have, at the very least, a capable leadership in place.

Meaning one that does not time and again rely upon or seek favour from the Saudi royal family. Yet at present this appears easier said than done given how the political set-up at this time has much in common with a circus show.

But how can Pakistan confront the US when it remains shackled in debt while the current account is running at deficit. Undoubtedly, Trump’s poor public diplomacy has negatively impacted the American objective of countering terrorism. Yet before we can look the US directly in the eye — we must learn to first stand on our own two feet. On the one hand, we are a nuclear power. But on the other, the massive debt trap has greatly compromised our sovereignty. North Korea is mired in poverty but it does not take a begging bowl to international institutions. The same may be said of Iran. Even when it had crippling sanctions regimes imposed upon it — it never sought financial assistance in the form of World Bank or IMF loans.

Thus if we, here in Pakistan, truly want to adopt a no-nonsense approach to our dealings with Washington then we must seriously consider giving up our dependency on any sort of financial assistance or aid from the US. Moreover, keeping in mind the present scenario we should be prepared to say goodbye to our non-major NATO ally status and all the fringe benefits that this brought with it. Thus we would have no other option than to strive towards economic self-reliance. Unfortunately, however, we are neither in a position to resolve the ongoing political crisis nor to achieve sustainable economic growth rates.

As far as the Trump threats to suspend all military assistance to this country — it will not in the long-term prove feasible for the US to dismantle the bilateral relationship. In my view, for the last 16 years American military efforts in landlocked Afghanistan have been dependent upon transit routes through Pakistani territory as well as airspace. Moreover, seeking alternative arrangements at this juncture would not be feasible for the US. Supply lines through the Central Asian states to the north is, admittedly, possible in theory. But given that this would be dependent upon Russian goodwill — it looks as if Washington is stuck with Islamabad.

North Korea is mired in poverty but it does not take a begging bowl to international institutions. The same may be said of Iran. Even when it had crippling sanctions imposed upon it — it never sought financial assistance from World Bank or IMF. There is a lesson here for Pakistan

Nevertheless, Pakistan should view the current crisis through the prism of opportunity; and look ahead towards the path of prosperity which will only be traversable once we have capable leaders at the helm. Yet as things stand, those at the top prefer to spend precious resources on mega projects instead of the essentials, such as education and hospitals. Thus we witness time and again resources squandered on the building of wedding halls and new housing societies; thereby leading to a property boom and related price hikes.

And all the while, former PM Nawaz can’t see beyond his ousting from power, which involves him routinely vowing to expose the conspiracy that is being hatched against him. Yet if this country holds nothing but painful memories for him — he could always ponder bringing back the looted wealth that he has stashed abroad. After all, he abused his position while in power to accrue vast assets, including expensive overseas properties.

The entire Sharif clan has been in power in one way or another for over thirty years. Indeed, only Maharaja Ranjit Singh can boast of a comparable tenure in the Punjab. Yet the Sharifs have demonstrated once more that they are least concerned when it comes to the problems facing ordinary citizens, such as the daily struggle for survival.

Sadly, Pakistan will continue to rot in this away until it finds itself a truly visionary leader. The US was fortunate enough to have Abraham Lincoln when the country was going through the tumultuous period of civil war between the north and south. Similarly, John F Kennedy displayed immense resolve during the Cuban missile crisis. If we go further back in time, we find that it was due to the stewardship of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and France’s Charles de Gaulle that the allies ultimately proved victorious against Nazi Germany. Meanwhile, here in Pakistan, the entire ruling party complains that civilian governments are forever being toppled by the Army. This was the case in Turkey until Recep Tayyip Erdogan assumed the presidency. Since then, he has successfully set the country firmly on the path of prosperity by way of undertaking progressive economic policies that eventually restored civilian supremacy. The lesson to be learned here is a simple one: put one’s own house in order first.

The writer is a human rights and constitutional lawyer and appeared as a counsel in the environmental case before the green bench constituted by the honourable Lahore High Court Chief Justice

Published in Daily Times, January 18th 2018.