Two completely unrelated data points ironically apply to repairing U.S.-Pakistani relations: George Bernard Shaw quipped that America and Britain were two nations divided by a common language. Seventy years ago — June 22, 1941 — Nazi shock troops stormed into Soviet Russia in a surprise attack that ultimately helped lead to the defeat of Hitler’s Germany in World War II.
Today, the United States and Pakistan are divided by far more than language. Politics, history, culture and, to a large degree, ignorance about the other are testing this vital relationship to the breaking point.
Pakistan remains a “major, non-NATO U.S. ally” but tensions and the so-called trust deficit are deteriorating on an almost daily basis despite lip service on both sides recognizing the importance of this relationship. Reasons explaining this chasm of discontent are well known and need not be repeated.
Unfortunately, the combination of the Raymond Davis incident last January in which three Pakistanis died and Davis was ultimately released; increases in American drone strikes inside Pakistan; and, of course, the raid that led to Osama bin Laden’s death has exacerbated Pakistani hostility against the United States and intensified tough and understandable questions about Pakistan’s intentions and commitments among Americans.
The recent detainment of a number of Pakistanis in conjunction with Pakistan’s investigation of bin Laden’s long-term residence in Abbottabad has sparked highly negative U.S. reactions. In particular, a retired Pakistani army doctor who provided license plate numbers of cars entering and leaving the compound to a CIA handler was “arrested.” Americans were angered as to why someone who helped bring the world’s leading terrorist to justice should be treated as a criminal.
In 1987, Jonathan Pollard was sentenced to life in prison for passing classified information to Israel while working for the U.S. Navy Department. Israel was and remains a close ally and friend. But spying is spying whether to help friend or foe.
In the case of the Pakistanis, no doubt their government will have far greater leniency than America showed toward Pollard probably meaning release of those detained. However, mutual hostility and misunderstanding rankle and not rectify these clashing perceptions.
Pakistan has its share of legitimate grievances against the United States. None of this makes life easier.
How then does June 22, 1941, enter into the picture?
Winston Churchill detested both Hitler and Stalin and despised the nature of authoritarian rule in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. But Churchill was absolutely clear about the greater threat and danger, bragging that he would make a pact with the devil to rid the world of Hitler. Indeed, Russia would play a crucial role in defeating fascism in making the Eastern Front a killing machine that destroyed a good part of the Nazi war machine.
Pakistan is not Soviet Russia and any association is neither intended nor implied. But Pakistan is as vital to success in defeating radicalism as Russia was in smashing Nazi Germany despite the ideological divide with Moscow before and after World War II.
Unlike Russia then, Pakistan is a democracy and friend with a civilian government doing its best to continue on that path despite titanic political, economic and social pressures. Pakistan still suffers from the effects of last year’s mqassive floods. About half of its 180,000,000 citizens are 21 and younger with few future prospects for jobs and a dignified life. Many Pakistanis live on a few dollars a day.
Combine these economics and demographics with increasing radicalism and all the ingredients of an improvised social explosive device of incredible destructive power are present.
Pakistan is essential to any solution that brings peace and stability to the region. The United States is equally vital to Pakistan’s security and stability. The question is whether this strategic imperative will be sufficient to force, convince or incentivize both sides to close the huge divides between them on all levels from public perceptions to defeating our mutual enemies out to overthrow the Pakistani government.
The challenge, and it is the severest test both governments face, is how to reconcile these differences and points of grave contention. Some argue for a cooling off period and a “reset” after that takes place when passions have receded. Others argue that this is a George W. Bush moment and Pakistan is “either with or against us.”
In a perfect world, the rational approach would be for both allies to list their interests, “red lines” that cannot be crossed, grievances against the other with supporting facts and data, not rhetoric, and proposals for making this alliance work.
This is an imperfect world and more than language and interests divide us. Working around these huge roadblocks and obstacles, many caused by misunderstanding, is the issue. And that will require great leadership and greater political courage by both countries if these divides are to be negotiated successfully.
Harlan Ullman is Senior Advisor at the Atlantic Council, Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business, and a frequent advisor to NATO. This article was syndicated by UPI.