The current crisis in Pakistan-US relations is caused by a clash of assumptions, expectations and interests of the two countries in their dealings with each other. Keeping in view Pakistan’s heavy dependence on the US in economic and security fields, Washington, without saying so, treats Pakistan as a client state in handling bilateral, regional and global issues. On the other hand, Pakistan, it seems, suffers from split personality. It readily walks into the US embrace like a client state whenever the latter opens its arms, without learning from the history of its relations with the US. However, despite its heavy dependence on the US, it expects to be treated by Washington on equal terms. This clash of assumptions and expectations exacerbated by the clash of national interests has been the root cause of the repeated crises in Pakistan-US relations.

The current crisis is no different. The so-called strategic dialogue between the two countries is expected by Pakistan to resolve all its major issues, whether it is the energy crisis, its sick economy, its weaknesses in the military field, its need for the US aid and investment, its acute water shortage and the need for new water reservoirs. We even expect Washington to help resolve the Kashmir issue for us in total disregard of the fact that in the current unfolding strategic scenario in Asia, the US neither has the capability nor the willingness to do so.

In fact, we see in the Pakistan-US strategic dialogue the panacea for all our ills and problems ignoring the harsh reality that we must resolve our economic and security problems through our own efforts. Not only that, we also hold the view that America should do all this and more for altruistic motives, forgetting that the US foreign, economic and military assistance is an important instrument of its foreign policy and not charity to be doled out to needy countries.

The US may have been ready to extend help to us in overcoming some of our economic problems, but, in return, it expected Pakistan to fall in line with its strategic objectives in the region. It was here that the real problem started. Whereas Pakistan was more than willing to act like a client state in obtaining economic and security assistance from the US like that promised under the Kerry-Lugar Bill, it wanted to be treated on equal terms in the handling of strategic issues. This was impossible especially when those issues were of vital interest to the US security. An independent foreign policy and heavy dependence on external economic and military assistance simply do not go together. So, it was just a question of time before these contradictions would come to the fore and cause a breakdown in Pakistan-US relations. This is precisely what happened last year through a series of events starting with the Raymond Davis affair, continuing with the Abbottabad operation by the US to get Osama bin Laden, and culminating with the attack on a Pakistani checkpost in November last year killing 24 Pakistani soldiers. The strong reaction of the military establishment to the US attack on the Salalah checkpost and the public hue and cry left the government with no choice, but to ask for the evacuation of the Shamsi Airbase by the Americans and suspend the Nato supplies to its forces in Afghanistan via the land route. It also ordered a review of the Pakistan-US relations.

The current crisis has been aggravated by the divergence of the strategic objectives and national interests of the two countries in Afghanistan. There is a degree of convergence of the positions of the two countries in the fight against Al-Qaeda and its affiliates. To that extent, cooperation between them is considered mutually beneficial by both sides. However, it is also true that the US views Pakistan both as an asset and a problem in the fight against international terrorism for two reasons: Its suspicion that some elements in Pakistan in the conduct of relations with India may still be prepared to use groups and tactics which are considered “terrorist” by the US and Pakistan’s unwillingness to extend total support to the US in its war against the Afghan Taliban.

Pakistan rightly distinguishes between Al-Qaeda as a terrorist organisation and the Afghan Taliban, who despite their retrogressive ideology constitute a legitimate part of the Afghan body politic. In fact, the restoration of durable peace and stability in Afghanistan is inconceivable without national reconciliation and the establishment of a broad-based government, including the Taliban/Pashtuns and the Northern Alliance/non-Pashtuns. The US government is gradually waking up to the necessity of a dialogue with the Afghan Taliban. However, it is still to work out the full implication of this realisation in its Afghan strategy. Till it does so, the divergence in the US and Pakistani positions concerning the Afghan Taliban would continue to cause problems in their relationship.

Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership and Parliament are currently engaged in a serious debate on the desired contours of the future Pakistan-US relationship. The focus is on the consideration of the recommendations presented by the Parliamentary Committee on National Security (PCNS) in a joint session of the National Assembly and the Senate on March 20. These recommendations basically link the reopening of the land supply route for the Nato forces in Afghanistan to a number of demands, including, inter alia, respect for Pakistan’s sovereignty, unconditional apology for the US attack on Pakistan’s border posts, cessation of drone attacks, and levying of taxes and other charges on supplies transiting through Pakistan for the Nato forces. While these recommendations currently are being fine-tuned by the PCNS in the light of initial reactions from various quarters, President Barack Obama told Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani in Seoul on the sidelines of the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit that a balance must be achieved between respect for Pakistan’s sovereignty and the US national security.

Ideally, the current review of our relations with the US must reset them at a level which is sustainable and must lead to an arrangement which is mutually beneficial keeping in view the strategic, security and economic interests of the two countries. We must be conscious of both the potential and the limitations of Pakistan-US relations. While there is a great deal of convergence of the interests of Pakistan and the US, there is also divergence in matters relating to China, Iran, Palestine, India and Afghanistan, just to name a few. Therefore, both sides have to be realistic in their expectations from each other.

We cannot and should not expect the US to solve all our economic and security problems. This is a job that we have to do ourselves through our own efforts primarily. External help, at best, can play only a marginal role in this regard. Secondly, the nature of our relationship should be such as safeguards our sovereignty, security and economic well being. Such a dignified relationship with the US is possible only if, instead of relying on it for all our economic and security needs, we pursue a policy of self-reliance internally and diversify our relations with other countries in the external field.

Until we learn to live within our resources, the US and others will continue to exploit us for their own ends. The question is: Whether our nation as a whole, particularly our civil and military leadership, has the courage and sense of honour to live within our resources? Those who claim that this is not practical need to learn a lesson or two from the Chinese experience of the past three decades.

n    The writer is a retired ambassador.