Pakistan, America and a reset

The focus of SASC meeting was Afghanistan but Pakistan got mentioned 73 times along with dozens of indirect references

Editorial February 11, 2017

Pakistan and America have been due for a resetting of their relationship for several years, and the coming of the new Trump administration would appear to be the point for such an event to occur. Two separate but connected events in the last week are the hinge around which much is going to turn in the coming weeks and months — the re-formulation of the immigration and refugee-barring executive order that has been kicked into the long grass by the US judiciary; and the most recent hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) in which Pakistan and Afghanistan featured prominently.

The focus of the SASC meeting was Afghanistan but Pakistan got mentioned 73 times along with dozens of indirect references. The new Trump administration has yet to formally define its relationship with either country; but it is clear now that change is afoot and that could bode well or ill for Pakistan depending on how our own government responds to American moves and to what extent the Americans are going to be applying pressure in pursuit of their own goals.

The commander of the US and international forces in Afghanistan was of the view that attempting to force cooperation from Pakistan was a road to nowhere and that diplomatic engagement was the way forward. Senator John McCain, familiar with both Pakistan and Afghanistan, restated the American dilemma. Pakistan has made sacrifices of blood and treasure fighting terrorism — but terrorist groups still operate within the country and have sanctuaries in both countries, an observation unlikely to be welcomed in Islamabad.

How that dilemma as it is perceived in Washington gets addressed will colour the relationship from the near future henceforward. Senator McCain said that the new administration is going to have to determine ‘what additional actions are necessary’ and that alleged Pakistani support for extremist groups in Afghanistan whether it be passive or deliberate was going to have to end. The Haqqani network and its presence in Quetta was mentioned also in negative terms.

Towards the end of a lengthy session methods came to the fore — how to help Pakistan defeat terrorism. Improved cooperation between US and Pakistan forces, and a ‘sit down’ with Pakistani counterparts to arrive at ‘a holistic review’ of the relationship now and in the future is indicated and it was recommended that such a review be a priority of the new administration. Frustration was expressed at aspects of the working — or not working — relationship and this meeting of the SASC has laid down a set of markers that our own government are going to have to ponder closely.

As the SASC proceedings were in process the train-wreck that was the ban on immigrants and refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries that ran full tilt into the bastion of the rule of law and the American Constitution, was up for a rethink. Pakistan was not one of the seven named, but the possibility of our being added to the list has not escaped the notice of our own lawmakers, and has to be understood in the context of the SASC meeting and the ‘holistic review’ it recommends.

Were Pakistan to be added to the list perhaps because of failing to comply with conditionalities imposed by the Americans the consequences could be profound. Many thousands of Pakistanis travel to and fro every year. There are trade and familial links. Military and intelligence contacts stretch back decades and although not always of the happiest have proved beneficial to both sides. Any move against Pakistan by the US would be much to the satisfaction of India playing as it would to recent attempts to isolate us diplomatically. Those attempts failed — which is not to say that they could not be revived given the opportunity for leverage. How Pakistan turns a possible threat, however veiled, into an opportunity is going to be crucial to our future relations with Uncle Sam. A Foreign Minister would be a useful tool to have in the kitbag at this juncture.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 12th, 2017.

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