by Alia Ahmed
Pakistan-US relations, buffeted and bruised by the periodic bluster of Donald Trump and his cabinet colleagues throughout 2017, witnessed a first, albeit hazy, sign of abatement when Acting Assistant Secretary of State Ambassador Alice Wells visited Islamabad on January 15-16, 2018. Her effort to arrest the vicious downward spiral of acrimonious bilateral relations, though timely and welcome to the stability of the region, requires a genuine change of dynamics and sustained nurturing. One swallow does not make a spring!
In contrast to the strident and threatening statements from Washington, the conversation with Ambassador Wells was polite, in low decibels and, by her own description, “constructive.” Both sides sought to create the public impression of calming the troubled waters. But for sanity to prevail, each side must listen more to the other, talk less and not past the other, and strive to maintain an uninterrupted dialogue underpinned by a comprehension of the limitations of the other.
The US announcement last August of its policy on Afghanistan and South Asia strategy lit a fire under the pot of Pakistan-US relations, and the war of words that followed for several months kept the pot boiling. It boiled over with Trump’s insulting and provocative tweet of January 2, 2018, more akin to a pre-dawn blitz on a target of choice than a statement of policy. The US president accused Pakistan of “deceit and lies,” of providing sanctuary and safe haven to its Taliban enemy and killers of US troops in Afghanistan while extracting $33 billion in US aid. The US would be taken for a ride “no more.”
Pakistan’s foreign minister replied within the hour that a considered riposte would follow. The very next day, he laid out Pakistan’s narrative, namely: that the Pakistan Army had eliminated terrorists from its border regions and did not tolerate cross-border actions from its soil; that Pakistan has sacrificed far more in blood and treasure than any recompense it has received and did not need US money; the US should fight its war inside Afghanistan and not expect Pakistan to fight their war on Pakistani soil; Pakistan remains prepared for intelligence sharing, counter-terrorism cooperation at several levels, and simultaneously for the search of a negotiated, peaceful political solution to the Afghanistan imbroglio.
What is the sound and fury all about?
The crux of the politics and polemics lies in US insistence that the Taliban enjoy safe havens in Pakistan from where they launch attacks inside Afghanistan that inflict US casualties and stymie US strategy for pacification and the peaceful political resolution of the Afghan problem. Pakistan, on the other hand, stoutly denies this allegation (saying terrorist structures have been destroyed and their cadres expelled) and invites the US to pinpoint the alleged presence of residual Taliban or stragglers, if any, which it promises to tackle aggressively. Pakistan’s offer of intel-sharing does not convince the US, which says Pakistan is double dealing.
Trump’s new Afghanistan policy goal of military ascendancy, driven increasingly by gung-ho generals, evokes skepticism and distrust. Could 15,000 US troops impose dominance where some 150,000 Soviet and then US-led NATO troops, taking turns over two decades, failed? As a result, today the Taliban still control 40% of Afghan territory and seek a direct dialogue not with a weak Kabul government—whose efforts at national reconstruction and national reconciliation lie in tatters—but with the US on terms of equality and with the avowed end result of complete US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
In this scenario, the new US strategy to push back the Taliban militarily and so generate a peace process from a position of relative strength looks really like a prescription for perpetual war. In Afghanistan, time and history do not stand with the intruder. There is neither certitude nor any sign that a weakened Taliban would crumble. At the same time, statements from the US security establishment do not encourage the view that it is ready to quit Afghanistan any time soon. Quite the opposite: there is talk of goal-oriented US military involvement in Afghanistan, which by implication appears to be open-ended in time.
The regional interlocutors of Afghanistan are all apprehensive and are taking up their positions. Russia and China do not favor a long-term US military presence in Afghanistan as it fosters instability and also provides the platform for US power projection in Central Asia. Iran’s attitude is part of its overall adversarial relations with the US. Pakistan’s legitimate concern is that in the eventuality of the exit of foreign forces from Afghanistan, the national government in Kabul should be inclined toward good neighborly and cooperative relations with Islamabad. Therefore, Pakistan cannot pick a fight with any warring side in Afghanistan, but should instead focus on its own anti-Pakistan terrorists, notably the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) who now operate from sanctuaries in Afghanistan. Strikingly, India remains the only regional interlocutor allied to the US and assigned any influential role in Afghanistan, which gives India the opportunity to pressure Pakistan on both its eastern and western borders.
The key to unlock the potentiality of this region lies in the creation—via trade, energy, and economic corridors—of a robust marketplace of several hundred million people. This is not achievable in the absence of durable peace in Afghanistan. The genuine interlocutors in this discussion are the state and the non-state actors in Afghanistan. The beneficiaries are the regional countries from the Arabian Sea all the way to Central Asia. It is high time for a regional approach to the solution of Afghanistan. A number of frameworks are available. The most recent is the initiative taken by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
It is surprising, is it not, that the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) gained its footprint in Afghanistan during the US watch? That IS is creating unease for the Taliban should hardly provide comfort to anyone. Witness the rise of IS in Syria, pitted against President Assad. IS could conceivably spread beyond Afghan borders, posing an existential threat to the region.
Meanwhile, with the fighting season around the corner, the specter looms large of the escalation of armed instability within Afghanistan and its blowback in terms of increased insurgency within Pakistan. The coming summer portends a rollercoaster ride!
Photo: Alice Wells (State Department via Flickr).