Prof. Touqir Hussain is a former Pakistani ambassador to Brazil, Spain and Japan. He currently teaches the course ‘Pakistan: In the Eye of a Geopolitical Storm’ at SAIS Washington. He also teaches courses on South Asian politics at Georgetown University and at Syracuse University.
A recent NYT article about Pakistan and al-Qaida was blanked out in the international paper printed in Pakistan. Do you think this issue will always be a thorn in the side of US-Pakistan relations?
Not at the government-to-government level. I think on the government level, the issue has already been put behind. But at the level of the public what happens is that public sentiment sometimes lasts much longer, especially when sensitive political issues are involved. I think the Pakistan government may have been concerned with how the public would react to this article, other than that it is no more an issue. The current [Pakistani] government has worked very hard and so has President Obama to normalize relations, because there is a lot at stake for the future of the US relations with Pakistan, and they don’t want to be mired in past controversy. But as I said at the public level it is very hard – for people here in the US, they have a negative perception of Pakistan because of that; and Pakistanis have their own sort of narrative on the issue.
Is there also a difference in public and government perceptions on drone strikes? What is a likely outcome in light of current discussions?
This is quite a difficult issue. It is not either-or. Neither the talks alone will solve this problem, nor force alone. It has to be either a combination or one after the other. Let’s say the government wants to take military action, for that it will need some kind of public support. A significant section of the public wants the talks, and towards satisfying them the government is engaged in talks, to see what comes of it. Maybe something positive comes of it, although I have my doubts. But if it does, there is no need for force, but before the government takes military action, it must satisfy the public that is has exhausted all peaceful means of resolving this.
The Pakistani public remains unhappy with drone strikes, but you know it is very strange that there is no [unified] segment of Pakistani public opinion. If you go to the FATA region where the drone strikes are taking place, the opinion is divided. In areas where there is support for Taliban, there is opposition to drone strikes. Where there is opposition to the Taliban there is support for drones. When you are talking of the public, you are talking of the more vocal sections of it. As you go to the rest of Pakistan, other issues enter the debate like sovereignty, human rights and the legality of these strikes. The issue also gets wrapped up in so many other issues of US-Pakistan relations [such as] Pakistan’s perception of America [and] anti-Americanism. While the general public has perhaps not taken an activist position on drones, the minority that has a position feels very intensely about it and its opinion is very negative.
There are concerns both in Pakistan and the US about Modi coming into power. Is it possible that US-Pakistan relations become stronger in the event of a Modi government?
Each country might be uncomfortable for different reasons, as they don’t have any shared reasons. Of course, at some point there is a certain commonality because part of the reason is how it would affect Pakistan-India relations, so in that sense there is a shared interest. Other than that each one of them has their own reasons for discomfort, but I don’t think the Pakistani government or even the US government is going to take any unfriendly action towards Modi. They will perhaps watch him, and judge him by his actions, not by his past. If he tries to moderate his views or if he tries to normalize relations with Pakistan, Pakistan will definitely reciprocate, and not go too much into the past. In fact they had a more tangible progress in normalization with the BJP than it has with the Congress. The Congress also has its past baggage with Pakistan. Of course there are some uncertainties and unease, but that’s not going to prevent Pakistan from responding to Modi.
Would trade be an important tool on the way forward for US-Pakistan relations?
Despite whatever the public perception may be, despite expressions of public unease with each other, the governments are eager to expand their cooperation. They now have strategic dialogue which has resumed when Nawaz Sharif visited Washington, which went very well. After that they’ve already had at least one round of talks when the Pakistani advisor on foreign affairs came to Washington, and next there will be a delegation going from here to Pakistan. This dialogue covers a wide range of important issues like energy, education, investment, trade, irrigation, healthcare and different institutions in Pakistan. At the practical level also the two governments are doing their very best to not only widen but also deepen their relationship.
Considering all of the above and the pull-out from Afghanistan, would you have any comments on the direction US-Pakistan relations are heading into?
The only direction I can foresee is that the two sides will become more serious. Once the US pulls out, it may have to seek Pakistan’s cooperation in a way, its help in the stabilization of Afghanistan, at least to make sure that there is no destabilization from Pakistan’s side. Pakistan also feels that it needs America’s cooperation for the same task, the stabilization of the region. Additionally, Pakistan needs America’s economic support, so it is both in their economic and strategic interest.
I think they would do their very best to avoid any tension or public controversies, of which there is a history. Now the two countries will try to treat each other with a little more seriousness and respect, rather than get involved in unfriendly perceptions of each other. In the past few years Pakistan has been wrapped up in anti-Americanism, and the US in anti-Pakistan feelings, and both sides have become very antagonistic towards each other. That has to change. And I think it will. So there will be an improvement, though I can only say this until the end of the Obama administration. Who is president after that? What are the issues [then]? I don’t know, but basically I am talking about the next two to three years.
As for Afghanistan the truth is [that] nobody knows how Pakistan will behave. Nobody knows how Iran will behave, and even India’s involvement in Afghanistan is very interesting. We don’t know what the new government, Modi’s government, can do. So there are question marks all around. But there are positive points also as the US is trying to normalize relations with Iran, and [as] Iran might cooperate with Afghanistan. And Pakistan needs the US, and the US needs Pakistan. Hopefully the new government of India will also try to cooperate as far as Afghanistan is concerned, with both the US and Pakistan. We understand there are reasons as well as compulsions for all of them to be on the same page, but whether they will actually end up being on the same page, we don’t know. Apart from compulsions there are also constraints, and sensitive issues which make it a very complex mix.