2 August 2010
Farzana Shaikh

Dr Farzana Shaikh

Associate Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme


Only the hard-hearted will be left unmoved by the calamities that have rained down on Pakistan in recent weeks. In the space of less than a month this war-torn country has endured the ignominy of being globally reviled as a devious ally by Wikileaks, faced condemnation from Britain as an 'exporter of terrorism', witnessed brutal sectarian violence in its metropolitan centre, Karachi, and is now devastated by its worst floods in living memory.

It is imperative therefore for Prime Minister David Cameron, who this week welcomes Pakistan's President, Asif Ali Zardari, to carefully consider how best to stem the bitterness in Pakistan that threatens to damage its relations with Britain. After rashly opting to use India as the stage to level charges of duplicity against Pakistan for 'looking both ways' in its war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, Cameron must now work strenuously to call on his full reserves of diplomatic restraint.

Powerful Forces

Not to do so would be to gravely estrange a key ally and compromise the good-will of Britain's million-strong Asian community of Pakistani descent. It would also risk under-estimating the dangers posed to Zardari, who has defied calls for him to cancel his visit to Britain and in doing so provoked the wrath of powerful forces in Pakistan. They include the armed forces, but Zardari has also alienated his Foreign Ministry, angered his coalition allies, exasperated the political opposition, incensed religious parties and inflamed a public at home that has long regarded him as a 'stooge' of the West.

Given their potentially serious consequences, are these risks really warranted when set against the low stakes involved in Pakistan's relations with Britain? Maybe not. But while the international repercussions may be low, the personal stakes for Zardari are significant. Zardari's personal standing has fallen significantly in recent months. What better way to burnish his democratic credentials than by being seen to refuse the dictates of Pakistan's military hierarchy, which last week cancelled a security summit with Britain in protest against Cameron's statements.

Engaging with Britain

No less important to Zardari is to remain positively engaged with Britain, which acted as a vital, if informal, broker of controversial political arrangements formalized in 2007 under the so-called National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO). They ensured for Zardari immunity against charges of corruption and made possible his elevation to head of state.

The Role of the US

But ultimately Zardari is likely to be aware that the current diplomatic row between Pakistan and Britain, however noisy, is a calculated and well-calibrated affair designed to vent Pakistan's frustration against its real target - the United States. Last week 60% of Pakistanis polled by the Pew Global Survey described the United States as their country's real 'enemy'. Unable to bite the hand that still feeds it and repeatedly admonished by US officials , in language more forthright than any employed by Cameron and for protecting militants it has been trusted to fight, Pakistan's leadership has had no choice but to settle scores via America's 'junior partner'.