The simultaneous imposition of restrictions by Pakistan and United States on each other’s diplomats once again points to the deterioration in relations particularly after the announcement of the South Asia and Afghanistan strategy by the Trump administration. However, the two countries seem to be carefully avoiding the edge.
Even after the restrictions went into effect in both countries and Pakistan additionally notified the withdrawal of the special facilities extended to Americans under some secretive arrangement, diplomats in Islamabad and Washington told this scribe that the two sides were continuing their dialogue – not just on the latest issue of restrictions on diplomats, but all others as well. The dialogue, it is learnt, is taking place in Islamabad but certainly away from media glare.
No one is certain what would be the outcome of this dialogue, given the complexity of the issues being discussed and the misalignment of the two side’s strategic interests in the region. Still, the two sides are wise enough to know that they cannot end their toxic marriage. Both sides are aware of the consequences of such a move and so, each side is keeping the other engaged.
The on-going dialogue at best may only help in managing the crisis in the relationship. It will not end that or address its root cause
Lest we forget, Pentagon, in its 2017 report on the situation in Afghanistan – after the announcement of the new strategy for the protracted conflict there – cautioned Islamabad that it “must see fundamental changes in the way Pakistan deals with terrorist safe-havens in its territory”, and for achieving this goal it categorically stated that it would not shy away from taking “unilateral steps in areas of divergence”.
Restricting the movement of Pakistani diplomats by US on the pretext that Pakistan had imposed the requirement of intimation for diplomats (remember it was not just for US) while moving out of their station of posting some nine years ago, or cutting off the military aid after the combative New Year tweet by President Trump, are not the unilateral steps that US has been warning Pakistan about.
Even the US sponsorship of the move in Financial Action Taskforce to get Pakistan grey listed, which will take effect next month and the blocking of listing of terrorist Abdul Wali, also known as, Omar Khalid Korasani at UN Security Council Sanctions Committee by Washington cannot be called unilateral actions.
These unilateral actions, which US officials quite often indicate in their background interactions, are far more serious. Those include expansion of drone attacks and stringent terror-related sanctions.
Meanwhile, the withdrawal of generous ‘facilities’ by Pakistani authorities are not any indication of Islamabad’s desire to seek a divorce.
To put it simply, these are all diplomatic tantrums meant to convey displeasure to the other side, but not really meant to change the dynamics of the relationship.
One such incident that proves the point is the way US military attaché Colonel Joseph Hall’s departure was handled. The military officer had run a traffic red light, killing a young motorcyclist and injuring the pillion rider. Pakistan’s Foreign Office asked the US Embassy to waive diplomatic immunity so that the diplomat could be tried for the crime he had committed, but as expected the immunity was not waived. As a sequel, Pakistan should have expelled the diplomat, expressing its displeasure, but Islamabad (read Rawalpindi) did not agree to this, knowing that doing so would annoy Pentagon.
When US wanted to take him away after the Islamabad High Court ruling that it would not ask the government to put Colonel Hall on the Exit Control List on a petition filed by the deceased’s father, the mighty people of the city prevented his departure. But they could only prevent his departure for two days, as if they only wanted the colonel to spend another weekend in Islamabad and enjoy its unexpectedly lovely weather in May.
The defense attaché was finally allowed to go on Monday. There is no doubt that Colonel Hall enjoyed immunity and could not have been prosecuted till that remained intact, but the way this episode played out revealed that someone was trying to make a point to the other side.
Col Hall’s departure, which according to some was reminiscent of Raymond Davis’ exit after a secret deal, whose details have only partially come out, has renewed some of the inconvenient questions about how this very crucial relationship is managed. What ails this relationship is the lack of transparency more than how the two states have failed each other.
The on-going dialogue at best may only help in managing the crisis in the relationship. It will not end that or address its root cause. That relief would be momentary and the crisis would soon re-emerge in some other shape. Crisis management may only prevent the two countries from openly exchanging blows, but would not stop them from pinpricking each other.
The only way to sustain positive relations is through honesty, not just towards each other, but also with their respective publics and being transparency about understandings that are reached from time to time. The list of the withdrawn facilities that FO notified to the US embassy, which had mentions of safe houses, unregistered and unverified SIMs, and multiple passports, is just one proof of how shady this relationship is.
The writer is a free-lance journalist based in Islamabad Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @bokhari_mr