Is America our friend? —Rasul Bakhsh Rais

Is America our friend? —Rasul Bakhsh Rais

Our rational self-interest in this situation dictates that we help rebuild a stable Afghanistan, help end the war and deepen our relationship with the United States, taking it beyond the contingencies of Afghanistan

This is a wrong question that is often raised and debated in the media, academic and political circles. Why it is a wrong question? Friendship between and among states has a different quality to it, and has more substance and meanings than the conception of friendship between people. And it is not really friendship between states, but the totality of relationship — its nature, extent, diversity, depth and commonality of objectives — that matters. Otherwise all countries with which a country might have diplomatic ties could qualify as ‘friends’, with very rare exceptions.

Relations among states have many dimensions and depths, and are motivated less by moral considerations and more by how the two sides in the relationship can benefit from what they do together on issues of peace, security or economic cooperation.

What really matters then is the issue of benefit. It is assumed that all states are rational actors, and those who govern them think rationally about the interest of their states and forge relationships to achieve national objectives. This may sound a bit academic and theoretical, but it is necessary to spell out what generally the operating assumptions of any country’s foreign policy are.

It is equally true that politicians and others types that control the states may fail to understand what the real interest of their states could be in a given situation. This could be due to false or incomplete information or due to some personality factors — any perceptual or emotional defects that may stand in the way of fully understanding and appreciating the dynamics of power politics or other forces that shape modern nation states.

All types of states, in disregard to their internal political configurations, are driven by self-interest. But self-interest in a globalised world requires cooperation with other states; no state can help itself, achieve progress or peace without the cooperation of other states. Yes, there can be serious questions about who gets how much and when out of cooperative enterprises among states, with so many layers of non-state actors like the multi-national corporations opening many paths and adding to the complexity of interactions.

Relations between states, however, cannot be zero-sum games; there are obvious and objective reasons for shaping them and there are benefits to be drawn. Never are such relations one-way traffic, at least not since the end of colonialism, with benefits flowing in one direction and costs accumulating on the other side.

We need to have some clarity about how the world system functions and how states form cooperative relationships in order to answer the question we have raised above.

It is not just our relationship with the United States but with other states as well that requires a degree of pragmatism and some basic knowledge of the operating principles and realities of world politics. Much of this knowledge is lost when one takes an ideological position on who can be a friend and who cannot be in the world arena.

The national debate on our relationship with the United States has interesting points that show how ideology and emotions have shaped it more than any clear ideas about what we have gained in different areas of national life.

This is not to discount the fact that this relationship has been controversial and remains so in the context of the current war in Afghanistan and our support to the international coalition to defeat the Taliban. And there have been hidden costs and negative consequences on our political landscape with great impact on the balance between political forces and state institutions.

But such costs are as much a result of our own state weaknesses, internal political confrontations, institutional conflicts and the character of ruling groups as the rentier quality of our state. No state can think of operating in an ideal environment, let alone Pakistan with so many internal problems and a highly complex regional security environment.

We need to apply a rational approach to the debate on our relations with the United States, with a full understanding of our objectives and how best we can realise them in an imperfect world with self-centred and competing states. This perspective is unfortunately lacking when we try to understand and explain state-to-state relations in personalised terms.

In the contemporary world, given our vital interests and multiple internal and external vulnerabilities, no other relationship for us can be more important than the one we have with the United States today. The question is how best we can turn this relationship to the benefit of Pakistan. We have in the past on many occasions protected our vital interests, like the nuclear programme, without yielding any ground, no matter what the amount of pressure.

Today, we seem to be divided not on the quality of relationship with the United States but essentially on whether or not Pakistan should be extending the support it is to the international coalition, mainly the US, in Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban insurgency. There is a section of Pakistani society that feels that the Taliban in Afghanistan are justified in resisting what they call a foreign occupation, and argue that Pakistan must stand neutral in this conflict.

That is not possible. Perhaps they don’t realise that the Tehreek-e Taliban of Pakistan is inspired, guided, funded, and controlled by the Afghan Taliban. The two have the same ideology and worldview, and believe in using violence to capture state power. It is however debatable what the best strategy is to deal with the issue of non-state actors and how can we peel local populations away from them.

Pakistan and Afghanistan face similar internal security threats but at varying degrees as state capacities are different. The war in Afghanistan, the current phase and its earlier cycles, have affected Pakistan very badly. Pakistan’s security and peace hinges on the success of the international effort to secure and rebuild Afghanistan.

The United States has come to occupy a central position in the strategic environment of Afghanistan and Pakistan. This may not be an ideal situation for us but that is the reality. Our rational self-interest in this situation dictates that we help rebuild a stable Afghanistan, help end the war and deepen our relationship with the United States, taking it beyond the contingencies of Afghanistan. There is genuine interest in the US and other world capitals in stabilising and normalising Pakistan by giving it a democratic and developmental orientation. It depends on us how best we leverage our position and advance our national interests.

Dr Rasul Bakhsh Rais is author of Recovering the Frontier State: War, Ethnicity and State in Afghanistan (Oxford University Press, 2008) and a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. He can be reached at