Islamabad, March 8: The tension in the Pakistan-US relationship has been palpable since 9/11 and is likely to escalate if there is a war in Iraq.
There is no doubt that pragmatic Pakistanis value US friendship because with it comes an economic lifeline — rescheduling of debts, soft loans and the prospect of defence supplies. But they are also uncomfortable with the US presence in Afghanistan and are upset each time they read about US operations on their own soil against the remnants of the Taliban and the al Qaida. A majority of them are also opposed to a war in Iraq.
Their resentment has been simmering over the humiliation they suffer at the hands of the Immigration and Naturalisation Services (INS) in the US and the suspicion with which they are treated. There is also a feeling that despite being a close ally of the US, Pakistan has not benefited to the extent that Turkey and Egypt have.
Iraq then is only the latest in the list of irritants. But there have been no million-man marches against the war in Pakistan. In fact, the first anti-war demonstration took place only on March 2. Prior to that “not even a dead dog came out in the streets against the US” — to use the phrase of a Pakistani political observer. Anti-American sentiment in Pakistan does not always translate into street demonstrations. This was amply demonstrated in the aftermath of the US action in Afghanistan. “When you talk of a public expression of anti-US sentiments, please remember that we live in a very restrictive environment,” said a senior political leader.
Najam Sethi, editor of The Friday Times, claimed that there were several reasons why there were no demonstrations: “Pakistan is the most anti-American country in the world today. But America gives us economic aid. This country has got used to living on largesse — remittances and aid handouts. We have not gone through 50 years of living with austerity like India. We don’t want to give up the good life. So we compromise quickly and never put up resistance to any imperialistic power.”
While political parties like the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal have capitalised on the intense anti-American feeling of the people, the carrot and stick policy of the US has effectively paralysed the Pakistan government into inaction.
As a rotating member of the UN Security Council, Pakistan, for example, has not as yet taken a position for or against the war in Iraq.
Such a war will provide further grist to the mill of the anti-Musharraf forces. But many believe that the General will ride over even this crisis.
“He is the master of the double game. If you had US deputy assistant secretary of state Christina Rocca visiting Islamabad last week, he also made sure that the Iraqi foreign minister was also in town. He becomes a liberal when he needs US support. And he goes on television to talk of protecting the national interest when he is about to do something which might be unpopular,” remarked a political observer.
There also a fear that after Iraq, the US may well end up targeting Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. “If the US wants to take out Iraq for its weapons of mass destruction, then there are other countries also which have these weapons. You can’t say that WMDs are acceptable in one place and not in another,” said Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi of the Pakistan Peoples Party.
Hamid Mir, a senior journalist, is of the view: “Musharraf will support the US in the event of a war in Iraq to avoid being targeted on our nuclear programme and its embarrassing link with North Korea. To avoid this Musharraf will play the India card. He is likely to say that Saddam was always a friend of India and that he never supported Pakistan on Kashmir; that Saddam in fact conspired against Pakistan and weapons were recovered from an Iraqi diplomat’s house in 1975; that Saddam killed Muslims (Kurds) in his own country; and that a war against him is a war not against Islam but against a friend of India.”
However, nobody knows how things will play out after the Iraq war. But there is an increasing realisation that US friendship can be notoriously short-lived. “America is a known quantity. It makes demands and once they are met, it negotiates a new relationship making newer demands.
The Americans believe that they do not need a strategic relationship with a country like Pakistan. They can, therefore, sever the relationship and come back again offering a news deal,” said Lt. General (retd.) Asad Durrani.
He, like many others in Pakistan, feels that the effect of this approach is the people start believing that either the government is giving away too much or the US is demanding too much. Once this reaches a critical point, the government starts becoming unpopular, he said.