Imran Khan explicably would like to focus primarily on domestic challenges with economy and political stability as his priority. But he is soon realising that foreign policy issues will be equally dominating his attention. For Pakistan’s dependent economy is deeply intertwined with foreign policy and relations with global and regional powers. As we have recently witnessed the US has not only curtailed its assistance programme to a meagre $150 million, but it also keeps the sword of sanctions and influencing decisions of the IMF and other aid agencies. With a hostile Congress and a dismissive attitude of President Trump, there is hardly a friend of Pakistan in the US. Time magazine opines “All actions of the Trump administration to date suggest that while it perceives Pakistan as a vital national security issue, developing a deep and comprehensive relationship is not in the cards. This is mostly because the US continues to view South Asia through two more important policy areas: the war in Afghanistan and the bilateral relationship with India.”
This reaffirms the classic assumption that Pakistan-US relations are transactional and currently dependent on how Pakistan is able to meet US objectives in Afghanistan and its quality of relations with India. In fact, on both these counts there are wide differences between the two countries.
Unfortunately, the recent telephonic call by Mr Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, to Prime Minister Imran Khan triggered an unnecessary controversy about the exact contents of the conversation. Even if granted that Pakistan’s version is authentic, the reality is that Washington’s primary focus is the conflict in Afghanistan. And their perennial compliant that Pakistan security establishment harbours the Haqqani network and the Taliban Shura is not new. Pressure on Pakistan to act against them or bring them to the negotiating table is intensifying, as the security situation in Afghanistan gets worse. The lack of mutual trust and unpleasant occurrences are also a reflection of Washington’s frustrations and Pakistan’s insecurities.
Hopefully, both sides would overlook the trivial spat so that they can focus on real issues pertaining to Afghanistan and allay misgivings about each other whether these are in the context of Afghanistan, India or CPEC. And promote economic and commercial ties to mutual advantage.
To add to the confusion, the Indians too disagreed with the Pakistani version of what transpired between Imran Khan and Narendra Modi. The Indian spokesperson denied that there was any mention about resumption of dialogue. It was merely a congratulatory call. The lesson to draw is that the Foreign Office needs to be more circumspect while issuing statements in the future.
The US is fatigued with its long war of 17 years in Afghanistan with no end in sight. The estimated financial cost of it since it started is more than $1.1 trillion. Moreover, the fragile political structure that the US created in Afghanistan with a democratic semblance is crumbling. President Ashraf Ghani is facing a serious political crisis as his key ministers threaten to quit. With the parliamentary elections due in October 2018, it could well be a tactical move on their part to distance themselves from the shortcomings of the government. Although it is possible that elections could be postponed for the third time if the security situation continues to deteriorate.
There was a flicker of hope for peace in Afghanistan after the US had indicated its willingness to accept the Taliban leadership’s demand that it directly negotiate with it. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Ambassador Alice Wells’ meeting with representatives of the Taliban in Doha raised expectations that this would be followed by both sides committing to serious peace talks. But the recent series of terrorist attacks by the Taliban in Kabul, Ghazni and other places has largely confused Afghans and dampened their spirits. Question on everyone’s mind is whether intensification of conflict by the Taliban is meant to strengthen their bargaining position in the proposed political negotiations or that they would prefer to continue with their offensive.
The recent attack by the Taliban on Ghazni led to fingers being pointed at Pakistan. Even if there is no truth that the government or any of the institutions are supportive of the Taliban, the fact that our narrative has few takers should be a cause for serious concern.
Pakistan’s interest in the stability of Afghanistan and India’s expanding role in the country backed by the US are certainly issues that cannot possibly be ignored. But Pakistan’s presumed policy of supporting or tolerating the Afghan Taliban leadership certainly needs to be revisited. Besides, inviting ire of the US, India, Nato and more specifically the Afghan government and a fairly wide cross-section of its population has ramifications for Pakistan’s stability. In this war of proxies, the TTP finds refuge and patronage both by the Afghan government and the Taliban. It is occasionally the target of the US, either when they want to oblige Pakistan as a quid pro quo or when any of the TTP elements become a threat to their forces.
The recent initiative by Russia to call a conference on Afghanistan is a good move. Pakistan, China, India and Central Asian states have agreed to attend. Most significantly, the Taliban leadership would be present. Russia’s interest in supporting the Taliban is to counter the growing influence of Islamic State in their Muslim-majority areas. The flip side is that the US and Afghanistan are not participating and consider that it will disrupt the recent peace initiatives.
The government is faced with the challenge of formulating and executing foreign policy in a complex and difficult global and regional environment. Our failing in the past has been that we have looked at national problems through a single lens and there has been hardly any institutionalised approach to policymaking. The cabinet and parliament instead of being in the forefront had conveniently delegated the responsibility to the military and the Foreign Office. This should change in the larger interest of the country.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 29th, 2018.