Published: Sunday, 3 August, 2008
WASHINGTON: The Pakistani foreign minister spoke with passion.
Better relations with India “are a top priority”, Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi told guests, emphatically, at a recent private dinner in Villanova, organised by the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia.
Speaking the elegant English of a Cambridge University graduate, he insisted: “There is a large constituency on both sides that wants normalisation. There may be hiccups, but we will forge ahead.”
This policy - if Pakistan’s new civilian government really pursues it - is of crucial importance to the US and the wider world.
I wrote recently about the centrality of Pakistani-Indian relations to the struggle against Al Qaeda. Pakistan’s army and intelligence services have been more focused on the border with India than on the mountainous Pakistani-Afghan border, where Al Qaeda and other murderous militant groups are now based.
The elected government of Pakistan - whose prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, visited the White House last week - wants to shift foreign-policy focus. It understands that jihadi groups present a more immediate threat to Pakistan than does India. But the civilian government is still trying to consolidate power and doesn’t fully control the military or intelligence agencies. It is unclear whether Qureshi can carry out his plans or whether the military will go along.
One thing is certain, however. The US should be doing all it can to help Pakistan’s new government establish control over the military and pursue warmer relations with India. I repeat: all it can.
I was struck by Qureshi’s fervour in outlining the measures he seeks to build confidence with India.
“It is in our own interest to have improved relations,” he said. “The Pakistani business community wants it.” That community grasps that its future growth depends on a more open relationship with its far bigger neighbour.
Qureshi wants to hold six conferences of businessmen and chambers of commerce from both countries, three in Pakistan and three in India, that would be kicked off by the foreign ministers of both sides. In the future, he wants to expand such conferences to include other sectors of civil society, including media.
Pakistan would like to move forward in resolving border disputes and restrictions, and expanding trade, before tackling the thorny issue of Kashmir.
Qureshi hopes to build up public support for better Pakistani-Indian relations. “When the public wants it, the military has to listen,” he explained. “It has to come from below.”
Of course, there is scepticism in India and elsewhere about whether Pakistan’s government can act on its intentions. (Afghan and Indian intelligence agencies suspect ISI involvement of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence Agency – ISI — in the recent bombing at the Indian embassy in Kabul and other attacks against Indian targets. Pakistan officials have denied the allegations.)
How can the US help?
“The US needs to have a long-term, broad-based relationship with Pakistan,” says Qureshi, “in which we build institutions (and) join resources against a common enemy.”
What does that mean? For decades America’s relationship with Pakistan has been based largely on military aid for specific services. In the 1980s, the aid went for Pakistani help in fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, and was cut off after that war ended. Since 9/11, aid has (largely unsuccessfully) gone to fight militants on the Afghan-Pakistan border. Toward these goals, Washington was happy to support military dictators.
This history has soured the Pakistani public on US policy; many Pakistanis see the war on extremists as a war forced on them by America, not as the joint struggle described by Qureshi.
To change these perceptions, it is necessary to shift the focus of the relationship and establish a long-term partnership with the Pakistani people, helping them build up key civilian infrastructure, like schools, clinics and roads. This is the thrust of landmark legislation, introduced by Senators Joe Biden, (Democrat), and Richard Lugar, (Republican), this month that would authorise $7.5bn over the next five fiscal years in nonmilitary aid.
“From the Pakistani perspective, America is an unreliable ally that will abandon Pakistan the moment it’s convenient to do so. We need to change this,” Biden says. His legislation is aimed at changing negative Pakistani perceptions of America.
A premise of the bill is the positive shift in Pakistani perceptions of America after US relief efforts following the 2005 Kashmir earthquake.
One provision would condition military aid to Pakistan upon the generals’ refraining from interfering in political or judicial processes — a warning against more coups.
“A long-term commitment to the people of Pakistan coming from Congress will provide the psychological and political confidence Pakistan needs to focus on the war on terrorism,” says Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington, Husain Haqqani.
No guarantees here. The odds are stiff that a weak civilian government can exert control over Pakistan’s military and change its focus from India to counterinsurgency in the tribal areas. But the US must do its utmost to help that government succeed. —The Philadelphia Inquirer/MCT
l Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her by e-mail at email@example.com.