The pride of position Af-Pak occupies in American foreign policy was underscored once again during the final presidential debate—that dwelt on foreign policy—between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney: Pakistan was raised no less than 25 times.
The contenders’ keen interest on a country thousands of miles away was equally matched the day after in Pakistan’s newspaper headlines, some of which ran: ‘Romney soft, Obama tough on Pakistan’; ‘One thing Obama, Romney agree on—Pakistan’; and ‘Obama, Romney sing the same tune on drones’.
It was clear from the tough-talking debaters that the US policy on Pakistan is characterised by an attitude of wariness and deficit of trust, and that notwithstanding the final outcome of the presidential elections, there is unlikely to be any major change of stance towards Islamabad. Some Pakistanis blamed the way the country featured in the debate on diplomatic failure. But everyone agreed that relations between the two countries won’t be in a freeze.
“It’s not the time to divorce a nation that has 100 nuclear weapons and is on the way to double that at some point. Pakistan is technically an ally, and they are not acting very much like any ally right now. It’s a nation that does not have a civilian leadership that is calling the shots there,” Romney had said. The president hinted at worse, saying that Osama bin Laden would certainly have escaped had the US sought permission from Pakistan.
The News International sums it up thus: “Pakistan battles for its sovereignty; the US seems convinced it must do all it can to battle militancy as the US sees fit”.
A PEW survey in June showed that currently 7 per cent of Pakistanis favour Obama, which runs even lower than the popularity of President Bush in the last year of his term. The BBC World Service poll found that Pakistan is the only overseas country of those polled that said it would prefer to see the Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney win the November elections. According to the poll, both candidates were given less than 20 per cent approval by Pakistanis, with Romney leading by a narrow margin.
The English daily Express Tribune says that traditionally, Republicans have maintained warmer ties and given more aid to Pakistan. At the same time, they “have also been more comfortable dealing with our military since there is a bipartisan consensus in Washington that Pakistan is brimming with rogue actors and that a military option, in the form of drone strikes, is completely necessary”.
Senator Mushahid Hussain, chairman, Senate Defence Committee, who created waves when the army’s budget and performance were publicly discussed by parliamentarians for the first time ever, says Pakistan remains “indispensable” to the US, and underlines the absence of any mention of India in the third Obama-Romney debate.
“The hard fact is that despite tall talk of a close strategic partnership, not once was India mentioned by Obama or Romney in their foreign policy debate on October 22. Conversely, Pakistan was mentioned at least 25 times, which shows that whatever the problems, both Obama and Romney regard Pakistan as indispensable for American strategy in Afghanistan,” claims the senator.
This signifies that, despite the impending change in political leadership in China and the upcoming US presidential polls, Pakistan has positioned itself to leverage its role and location with both a rising China and a declining America, adds Mushahid. Others feel that real change should come from within Pakistan, since the old pattern of bilateral relations has not delivered in the long run.
Raza Rumi, director at Jinnah Institute, said recently, “It is time to make some tough choices. Pakistan can either decide to be independent, free itself of US aid and reduce its engagement with America. Or it can take the alternative route of becoming friends and imbibing global values.”
Obama or Romney, it is apparent that Washington won’t certainly change its polices towards Islamabad—whether on conditional aid, the use of drones or action against militants.
Is Pakistan ready to take the first step and, as Rumi says, to start to assert itself in a more purposeful way?