While there are differing views about the PM’s recent US visit, any realistic assessment must recognise two undeniable positive outcomes: one, that instead of the usual American mantra to “do more” against the Taliban, Pakistan is being asked to facilitate an Afghan peace settlement through dialogue which is consistent with Pakistan’s own policy; and, two, Trump’s previous South Asia strategy of relying on India to secure Afghanistan has been replaced by recognition of Pakistan’s central role in this process. Therefore, the dynamics of the Pakistan-US relations have changed from confrontation to cooperation. The key to developing a sustainable partnership will, however, depend upon the ability of both sides to resolve the Afghan conflict. This is by no means certain, as the road ahead has several obstacles to be overcome.
The most serious challenge will be to reach and implement a sustainable Afghan peace settlement. With Pakistan’s crucial assistance, the US-Taliban talks have made significant progress, involving timeframe for US troop withdrawal and Taliban commitment to eliminate terrorism from the Afghan soil. But the Americans also want the Taliban to engage in direct talks with the Afghan government and accept a ceasefire, for which they seek Pakistan’s help to persuade the Taliban. It remains to be seen whether Pakistan can do so in the forthcoming talks with the Taliban leadership. So far, the Taliban have only agreed to an intra-Afghan dialogue and not just with the Afghan government, after the US withdrawal agreement has been announced. None of the sides have agreed to a ceasefire either. Meanwhile, an “unofficial” intra-Afghan dialogue in July reached agreement on a “roadmap” for peace in Afghanistan. This meeting was the continuation of efforts by Pakistan, the US, Russia and China. But the details of the roadmap still need to be worked out and implemented. Given the continuing differences among the Afghans on issues such as power sharing and the mechanism for the transition to a broad-based government as well as the baggage of the past ethnic and sectarian rivalries, implementation of the road-map will face serious difficulties.
There could also be the negative role of spoilers like India and perhaps, Iran. While the latter could be brought on board on the grounds that they want to ensure the US forces exit from their neighbourhood, the former has a vested interest in preventing any role for the Taliban in a future Afghan government since they view the Taliban as Pakistan’s allies. Moreover, having been effectively dealt out of an Afghan agreement, India does not want an Afghan settlement that would help improve the Pakistan-US relations. For these reasons, India could use its Afghan allies to scuttle an agreement.
Another challenge confronting Pakistan is the negative role of the American establishment which has used Pakistan as a scapegoat for its failure in Afghanistan. Its negative narrative continues to allege that Pakistan has “deceived” the US and wants to use the Taliban to “control” Afghanistan. Due to this hostility, no joint statement could be agreed upon during the PM’s visit. Allied to the establishment is the Indo-American lobby in the US Congress, media and think-tanks.
There is also the danger that a rogue terrorist attack on US troops in Afghanistan, or a false-flag Indian operation within India or occupied Kashmir could be blamed on Pakistan and may derail Pakistan’s improving relations with the US. The Indians are quite capable of using their terrorist proxies like the TTP and the BLA to carry out such subversion. The “terrorism” issue which was noticeably on the back burner during the PM’s meeting with Trump could resurface and deviate from the real focus on an Afghan settlement.
From a broader perspective, both countries would face the challenge of reconciling their respective approaches to each other. While Pakistan continues to seek a long-term strategic partnership with the US, the Americans are pursuing the short-term tactical goal of an Afghan settlement with Pakistan’s help. Moreover, in the growing rivalry between the US and China, Washington has engaged in a strategic partnership with New Delhi to contain China, whereas Islamabad maintains a strategic relationship with Beijing.
To overcome these diverse challenges, Pakistan must, first of all, use every available leverage with the Afghans, including the Taliban, to conclude and implement a sustainable peace agreement in that country. At the same time, we need to be clear that we can only persuade but cannot compel the Afghans to resolve their differences. To strengthen our efforts, we must also involve like-minded countries, especially China and Russia, to achieve an Afghan accord. Such a concerted effort would also be useful to defeat Indian machinations to derail the process.
Firm control would be needed against rogue elements within the country to overcome the charge of terrorism and prevent the realignment with the US from being derailed. This would also help Pakistan get off the FATF grey list and the UN’s terrorism listing. To demonstrate its cooperation, the US has also acted against the BLA which is a positive development. Concurrently, Pakistan needs to highlight the Indian and Afghan role in supporting terrorism through the TTP and the BLA, especially in view of the recent attacks on our troops.
The PM’s personal rapport with Trump together with direct lines of communication with the White House would help neutralise the hostile American administration and anti-Pakistan lobbies. Success on the Afghan issue will further neutralise these critics.
With regard to the global strategic context, Pakistan ought to position itself to benefit from the dynamics of superpower confrontation. Pakistan’s geopolitical location and possession of nuclear weapons are attributes that the US cannot ignore. Similarly, our strategic partnership with China, especially the implementation of CPEC, is a major factor for Pakistan’s security and stability. Moreover, beyond the Afghan issue, the US would still need Pakistan’s cooperation for counterterrorism and the larger interest of regional peace and security.
A good beginning has been made by the PM’s visit to reset relations with the US. Now we need to move forward on the road ahead.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 2nd, 2019.