Lahore, Pakistan - Although overshadowed by rapid developments in the Arab world, Pakistani-US relations will come increasingly to the fore in 2011.
In his annual State of the Union address on 25 January, US President Barack Obama highlighted the United States’ upcoming withdrawal of military troops from Afghanistan in July and said that Al Qaeda’s leadership was under more pressure in Pakistan now than it had been at any other time since 9/11. And in December 2010 Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, in a meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, reiterated that the war in Afghanistan cannot be won without Pakistan’s support.
Over the past nine years since Pakistan became a frontline state in the US-led war in Afghanistan, relations between the United States and Pakistan have become increasingly important and complex as the two countries balance their own geo-strategic, security and economic interests.
Uncertainty still remains about how to effectively deal with Afghanistan, where an end to the conflict with the Taliban is nowhere in sight, and its spillover effects are worsening by the day for neighbouring Pakistan.
The United States continues to suspect that elements in the Pakistani government are reluctant to cut ties to extremists in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region because of their utility in fighting India in the Kashmir conflict and deterring Indian influence in Afghanistan. Still, the United States has not done much to lessen tensions between Pakistan and India, nor has it been able to assure Pakistan that it will not again give it a cold shoulder after the United States achieves its strategic goals in Afghanistan, as happened during the 1980s.
It is nothing short of ironic that the militants who were once jointly supported by Pakistan and the United States to help drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan have become a major problem for both countries. Pakistan has been paying a heavy price for its active support of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan and the conflict has not only spread to tribal areas bordering Afghanistan but to major Pakistani cities as well, where violence has put unbearable pressure on already fragile economic conditions.
In addition to contending with these geo-strategic challenges, Pakistan is presently facing serious economic problems, including sluggish growth, high inflation and insufficient funds required for development purposes. While the need for generous international support to help overcome the multifaceted difficulties confronting the country keep growing, donor resolve to do so seems to be inversely shrinking. Consider, for instance, the fact that major donors have so far released only $1.5 billion since April 2009, out of the initially pledged $6.2 billion that was to be given to Pakistan by June 2011.
During US President Barack Obama and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari’s brief meeting in mid-January, Zardari conveyed the urgent need for more support, and Obama promised to find new ways to help strengthen Pakistan’s economy. Although the United States did approve a five-year $7.5 billion package for Pakistan last year, this commitment does not seem sufficient to meet the rising cost of development being worsened by the deteriorating law and order in an increasingly insecure environment.
If the United States wants to help lessen the enormous pressures on the Pakistani government, which it claims is a key ally, it must think in terms of more sustainable solutions. Currently, the United States primarily relies on encouraging the International Monetary Fund to provide the already indebted country with more loans – accompanied by stringent conditions such as decreased public spending.
It would be a welcome sign to see the United States consider a debt write-off instead, which would enable Pakistan to overcome its crushing fiscal deficit, much of which is primarily being used to service insurmountable debts and to pay for military expenditures made necessary by the US military operations.
The Pakistani government must also realise that it cannot be a permanent recipient of aid, and begin to undertake progressive reforms that do not pass on the brunt of austere measures to those who are already poor and struggling.
Unless the lives of ordinary citizens really begin to improve, social tensions within the country will only escalate, making it even more difficult to curb militancy and the ensuing conflict within Pakistan and beyond.
* Syed Mohammad Ali is a development practitioner and columnist for The Express Tribune and The Friday Times in Pakistan. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).
Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 15 February 2011, www.commongroundnews.org
Copyright permission is granted for publication.