New Pakistani-US Dawn Is Required

By Katherine Marshall

The deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers on November 26 during NATO operations at two border posts inside Pakistan was, as US President Barack Obama observed, a tragedy for the soldiers’ families and for their nation. It would be another tragedy to miss the opportunity that this crisis offers to step back and reassess what is clearly a tangled web of troubled relationships between Pakistan and the United States.

Relationships between these two countries are among contemporary diplomacy’s most complex. Powerful common interests and many shared values have brought Pakistanis and Americans together time and again, but all too often relationship talks take place in the face of raw tensions that resurface with every new crisis. The diplomatic dance is accentuated by Pakistan’s pivotal position in the intricate geopolitics of South Asia, including those of Kashmir and Afghanistan. Pakistan’s nuclear capacity naturally adds to the complications as do troubled civil-military relations within the country.

In the wake of the incident, Pakistan closed off its border to NATO supplies, and NATO has begun an investigation into what occurred. And this week, international leaders are meeting in Bonn, Germany to discuss the future of Afghanistan, focusing on regional priorities and collaboration. Pakistan’s participation is in serious doubt in the wake of the crisis. But it is vital because of its crucial role in the many issues at play, with the future stability of Afghanistan being the most immediate challenge. Pakistan’s assets include its deep knowledge of the players, its cultural affinity with Afghanistan, as well as its physical location.

Peace in the region, that vital if elusive goal, needs to be built with Pakistan as an engaged and committed partner, and the United States should treat it as a partner on this journey. Peace cannot come without addressing core issues relating to the military and regional conflict. The human development of the region is just as important and Pakistan’s active engagement is vital.

The common interests and common concerns that link Pakistan and the United States are what drive the urgent need for a profound relationship review. Pakistan and the United States have a keen interest in peace in South Asia and in a future that offers all people an opportunity and a voice. Pakistan can also exercise leadership in the Muslim world as it bridges Asia and the Middle East.

The United States needs to reflect on its stance towards Pakistan, not only in the obvious areas of diplomacy and military collaboration, but across the board. It is sad but perhaps not surprising that the United States often comes across as a bully or at best an overbearing, rich, but unhearing friend. The seeds of today’s successive crises were sown long ago. No relationship – among people or nations – can do well when an imbalance of power is at the fore and when finances are seen to drive day to day interactions. No relationship can succeed without a real and honest appreciation of both the interests and concerns on all sides.

So it’s time to take a hard look and explore how two proud, large and complex nations and governments can move forward together to reconstruct their troubled relationship. The first step in improving relations is to acknowledge the mistakes made and commit to resolving outstanding issues peacefully and fairly. A second step would involve some serious listening, and that would of course require engagement by many parties. Americans at least could make sure that those who work with Pakistan, whether in the Foreign Service or in commerce, NGOs or the military, make serious efforts to understand this fascinating country, including its history, religious heritage, culture and demography.

Let’s hope that those with the capacity and responsibility to do so step back, reflect and look with fresh eyes at what is needed to reconstruct the respectful, honest and principled relationship that the two nations deserve and need.

Brinkmanship and lurching from crisis to crisis need to give way to a set of relationships with a long-term vision. They must involve governments, engaging with respect and care as they navigate what are clearly sensitive topics: ensuring that aid does what it is supposed to do and that local knowledge and sensitivities are given genuine respect. And private actors, universities, businesses and NGOs should be trusted partners. It’s difficult but possible – and even imperative.

Katherine Marshall is a Senior Fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.

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