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Resetting The Terms Of US Engagement With Pakistan

Pakistan’s noxious Afghan Policy is a major stumbling block...

27/07/2017 8:50 AM IST | Updated 27/07/2017 8:50 AM IST
Joshua Roberts / Reuters

The US State Department's "Country Report on Terrorism 2016", released on 19 June, clearly mentions:

"Numerous terrorist groups, including the Haqqani Network (HQN), Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), continued to operate from Pakistani soil in 2016. Although LeT is banned in Pakistan, LeT's wings Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) and Falah-i-Insaniat Foundation (FiF) were able to openly engage in fundraising, including in the capital. LeT's chief Hafiz Saeed (a UN-designated terrorist) continued to address large rallies."

The report, which laments the slow progress on regulating madrasas, blocking extremist messaging, cutting off terrorist financing and strengthening the judicial system, clearly vindicates India's longstanding position on the menace of cross-border terrorism.

The US must give the message that if Pakistan wishes to reset the tone of its "historic" relationship with the US, Islamabad can no longer avoid taking some bold steps.

As the Trump administration is going to decide America's approach towards war in Afghanistan as well as the nature of its future engagement with Pakistan, there is anxiety in both Pakistan and India. Although some of the executive actions that President Donald Trump has taken are going to make his stay in the White House a bit bumpy, he is still capable of leading the US toward a new policy paradigm in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Islamabad has not made any serious effort to reach out to the Trump administration so far. The US must give the message that if Pakistan wishes to reset the tone of its "historic" relationship with the US, Islamabad can no longer avoid taking some bold steps.

Despite a deep political and strategic partnership for decades, the US-Pakistan relationship has been facing tremendous challenges of late. Ties between the two countries are overwhelmingly dependent on Pakistan's ability to cooperate in ending the scourge of jihadist terrorism and helping the US stabilise Afghanistan. The US feels dissatisfied with largely hollow promises of cooperation from Pakistan on both fronts, as reflected in the recent vote in the House of Representatives on the National Defence Authorisation Act (NDAA) 2018. The bill passed by the House has approved three legislative amendments to impose stricter conditions for reimbursement of defence aid to Pakistan, with a caveat that Islamabad should make satisfactory progress in the fight against terrorism. Clearly, Pakistan must signal a shift in its approach towards Afghanistan as it makes perfect sense at this crucial moment.

On several occasions, US officials have stated that Pakistan should become more sincere about engaging the Afghan Taliban in the reconciliation process.

Pakistan's foreign policy has been historically shaped by the structural determinants of being a major US ally, a fact that has often raised its strategic profile. Because of its unique geographic location, huge population, nuclear arsenal and world's sixth-largest army and standing in the Muslim world have given it a substantial diplomatic and strategic heft. At the peak of the Cold War, and again during the anti-Soviet "jihad" in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and more recently after 9/11, the US and Pakistan have been close allies. However, this collaboration has degenerated into mutual angry recriminations now. Despite spending precious political capital and enormous financial aid, American clout in and political leverage over Pakistan remains very modest, if not negligible. Vocal and consistent demands from the US Congress and by members of Trump's national security team who have recently travelled to Pakistan are an ongoing source of difficulty for Rawalpindi. For sceptics in Washington, Pakistan's current posture and actions in Afghanistan demand continuing vigilance. According to the June 2017 Pentagon report:

"Afghan oriented militant groups, including the Taliban and Haqqani Network, retain freedom of action inside Pakistani territory and benefit from support from elements of the Pakistani Government ... The United States continues to convey to Pakistan at all levels the importance of taking action against all terrorist and extremist groups."

Afghanistan, Pakistan's land-locked neighbour, faces a volatile convergence of political instability, institutional weakness, and endemic conflict. The American intelligence community is convinced of the presence of these outfits in Pakistani territory as well of the material support being provided to them by Pakistan's security establishment: these are considered as critical enablers of current insurgency in Afghanistan. At present, the security environment in Kabul is very grim. Afghanistan remains literally under siege from the Afghan Taliban as well as from the ISIS. Last few months have witnessed an unrelenting wave of devastating terror attacks. Afghan Taliban continues to insist defiantly that direct dialogue with the Kabul government is possible only after foreign troops withdrew from Afghanistan – a condition which is not likely to be met by a government struggling for its very survival.

The Trump administration does not seem to provide Pakistan with the leverage to insist on substantial—and desperately needed—military and non-military aid. President Trump is not willing to listen to unconvincing arguments about good terrorists and bad terrorists. His remarks in Riyadh that "every country in the region has an absolute duty to ensure that terrorists find no sanctuary on their soil" clearly reflect his refusal to acknowledge the Pakistani army's contribution in fighting jihadist terror as it fails to confront other terrorists. In his Riyadh speech, Trump mentioned India but not Pakistan as the "victim" of terrorism. He refrained from a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, even as he had a meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

Pakistan has done itself no favours by continuing to raise fears of India's presence in Afghanistan without providing any credible evidence to convince the international community of Indian misdemeanours.

The noxious nature of Pakistan's Afghan policy represents a massive stumbling block on the road to a cooperative ambience between Islamabad and Washington. On several occasions, US officials have stated that Pakistan should become more sincere about engaging the Afghan Taliban in the reconciliation process. During a recent hearing on Afghanistan at the Senate Armed Services Committee, the US National Intelligence Director, Dan Coats, clearly said that "an evaluation of how we (the USA) work with Pakistan to address the situation of the harbouring of terrorist groups would be essential to a strategy that affects Afghanistan." In fact, Pakistan should immediately stop claiming that it has lost leverage over the Afghan Taliban. If Pakistan expresses its inability to deliver the Taliban leaders to the negotiating table, how does it prove its utility at the negotiating table? Instead, Pakistan must acknowledge its links and promise to do whatever it can to pressurise the Afghan Taliban to negotiate seriously.

Pakistan's readiness for course-correction on the terrorist sanctuaries must focus on specific steps that its army would need to undertake. These would amount to serious military efforts to curb the Haqqani Network and the Afghan Taliban's ability to indulge in violence across the Durand Line. This also remains a prerequisite for the Afghan government to step up efforts to reinvigorate the stalled peace process with the Afghan Taliban which still lacks moral and constitutional legitimacy to represent the Afghan people. Both Kabul and Islamabad would need to be in agreement on verification mechanisms that prove Pakistani actions in pursuit of this agenda. These measures assume special significance, particularly because of the tendency of Afghanistan and Pakistan to respond to provocations rather than find peaceful solutions through dialogue.

Pakistan has more to lose by alienating the US on Afghanistan than by continuing to strive to find common ground—however inadequate the overlap in their positions may be.

Rather than on any ideological, diplomatic, military or economic convergences with the US, Islamabad has invariably kept the broader focus of US-Pakistan relations on dynamics of Indo-Pak divergences. Due to similar logic, Pakistan has found itself strongly aligned with China's "counter-hegemonic" foreign policy. Pakistan should therefore accept that its Afghanistan policy continues to be driven by its ideological and geostrategic schizophrenia against India. The June 2017 Pentagon report on Afghanistan has candidly pointed out that "Pakistan views the outcome of Afghanistan to be in its vital national interest and thus remains driven by its India-centric regional policy objectives." Islamabad does not want the emergence of an Afghanistan which is friendly to India and hostile towards Pakistan. This is very problematic for the Trump administration: the US and India seem to be on the same page on regional security issues, including Afghanistan. During Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's recent meeting in Washington with President Trump, the Afghan issue also made an appearance. According to the joint press statement:

"The increasing instability, due to terrorism, in Afghanistan is one of our common concerns. Both India and America have played an important role in rebuilding Afghanistan and ensuring its security. In order to attain our objectives for peace and stability in Afghanistan, we will maintain close consultation and communication with the U.S. to enhance coordination between our two nations."

The time has come to take firm and practical steps in this regard. In its dealings with the Trump administration, Pakistani policymakers must be asked to be very specific about what really bothers them in Afghanistan. Pakistan has done itself no favours by continuing to raise fears of India's presence in Afghanistan without providing any credible evidence to convince the international community of Indian misdemeanours. Pakistan has more to lose by alienating the US on Afghanistan than by continuing to strive to find common ground—however inadequate the overlap in their positions may be. Most importantly, Pakistan's renewed engagement with the US will remain fragile and futile unless there is a real commitment by Islamabad to change its Afghan policy, which has yielded disastrous consequences.

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