Insights and Analysis

Resetting the U.S.-Pakistan Relationship

March 21, 2012

By Teresita C. Schaffer

Below is an excerpt from an op-ed that originally appeared on Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel on March 19.

For over half a century, every period of strong U.S.-Pakistan partnership has relied on lofty but ambiguous promises to create the impression of a strategic bond. The U.S. and Pakistan now need less soaring rhetoric and more understanding of their mutual expectations. Where expectations are unrealistic, they need to be pared down through serious consultations. This kind of exercise has often been castigated as a “transactional relationship.” Perhaps – but that is not an insult: it is a way to avoid the “jilted lover” syndrome that has afflicted both Islamabad and Washington through over-promising and under-delivering.

This more candid and realistic diplomatic style also includes greater U.S. willingness to listen to Pakistan’s articulation of its own needs, and vice versa. The United States needs to be willing to say no when Pakistan’s requests are really beyond reach – and to accept no for an answer, even if Pakistan rejects U.S. assistance that Americans think would help it. Above all, hard as it may be, the United States should get out of the business of pleading and finger-wagging. Our system makes it hard to stop issuing report cards – some (like the human rights report) are legally required, others are an inevitable result of Congressional testimony and other demands – but the U.S. should minimize this.

Moving beyond style, the United States should start now to build up three tools. The first is a smaller but better targeted economic aid program. Present aid levels are more than the state of U.S.-Pakistan relations can sustain, and the U.S. administration will have its work cut out preserving even a much smaller program once U.S. forces have left Afghanistan. But both the United States and Pakistan can benefit from concentrating on activities that support the parts of the Pakistan economy that are modernizing.

The U.S. and Pakistan should work out the details in candid consultations. Our suggestions start with infrastructure: irrigation and power generation facilities. This can be done with Pakistanis in the driver’s seat, and with due attention to the political dimension of these projects. Such projects have a visibility that U.S. aid programs have all too often lacked. A second suggestion is, for want of a better term, business development: helping Pakistan build up the human capacity and institutions to support a larger and more vibrant small and medium business sector. We believe these would be welcomed in Pakistan despite the rejectionist posture one hears today.

The next tool is building up real business ties between the United States and Pakistan. This should not be in the form of a gift from the U.S. government: businesses make their own investment decisions. Before they invest in Pakistan, they will require a safer environment and above all the example of Pakistani businesses putting their own money into new plants and other facilities in Pakistan. But the U.S. government can lend important support once tentative efforts start. Examples include insurance programs like those of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) and pre-investment studies like those funded by the Trade and Development Agency (TDA). The biggest contribution would be extending preferential access to Pakistani textiles – a big stretch in today’s environment but something that could be pursued if current tempers quiet down.

Read the full article.

Asia Foundation trustee Teresita C. Schaffer is former U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka and former deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.


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