Sustaining US operations in Afghanistan without Pakistani ground lines of communication would be very difficult and costly. Other considerations like the criticality of a nuclear armed Pakistan of 200 million remaining stable and also remaining at peace with its neighbours, peaceful internally and thriving economically, argue strongly for US-Pakistan cooperation.
If President Trump was to consider these arguments, there is a possibility that Pakistan could expect soon the revival of another transactional relationship (the fourth round) with the US.
But in view of the fact that the last three such relationships (during the regimes of Ayub, Zia and Musharrraf) had ended up causing gigantic socio-economic and political problems for Pakistan, Islamabad would like to see a qualitative change this time around in the nature of the relationship.
For example, Pakistan could request in return for facilities for ground lines of communications and dismantling of sanctuaries of Afghan Taliban and the Haqqanis in various parts of the country the revival of reconstruction opportunity zones (ROZs) on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border for the manufacture and export of textiles and apparels duty free to the US plus initiating the process of US-Pakistan bilateral trade agreement. The ROZs could be provided protection by joint Pakistan-Afghanistan troops patrolling the area. The US help could also be extended to Pakistan for establishing a free trade zone in the no-man’s land straddling the Durand Line now serving as a free terror zone.
The course of action the US has pursued since the early 2000s with regard to Pakistan has not produced the changes needed in Pakistan’s policies in Afghanistan. US strategists believe that Pakistanis tolerate the Taliban out of conviction that America will again desert them — just as it did in 1989. But the US has already stayed in Afghanistan for 16-plus years, with no plans to leave. Therefore, it should help allay Pakistani fears that it will again face an Afghanistan in chaos or an Afghanistan dominated by India. The US purpose should be to help Pakistan to change its calculus over time.
Washington might sketch out a vision of an improved relationship with Pakistan. This would certainly support the broader American interests, given Pakistan’s central role in the stability of the entire region.
While there is no easy answer about how to improve US relations with Pakistan, the US should expect that clear articulation of an enduring American commitment to Afghanistan and the region can help in gradually reducing the distrust and rivalry that often predominate its relationships in Central and South Asia today.
President George Bush had concluded back in 1989 that Afghanistan was not worth continued US investment. And after covert programmes in the 1980s to aid the Afghan Mujahideen, the United States effectively withdrew from the region.
But ignoring Afghanistan proved unwise. The turmoil that ensued in Afghanistan after 1989 ultimately gave rise to the Taliban. The US disengagement also helped create cynicism among Pakistani security officials about American motives and American dependability.
Pakistan was left largely on its own to cope with the aftermath of the successful Mujahideen effort against Soviet forces, absorbing millions of refugees and other burdens.
As a consequence Pakistani authorities point to this past American behavior to call into question US commitment to the region going forward and Islamabad had often then legitimately used this concern to justify its own policies of tolerating and in some cases supporting the Afghan Taliban’s safe havens on its territory.
The operational US goals in Afghanistan should be twofold. In the short term, the US objective should be an Afghanistan increasingly capable of handling its security challenges and governance duties with modest foreign help. In the longer term, the goal should be a peaceful, more prosperous, and better governed country that contributes to regional security.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 12th, 2017.