Relations between Pakistan and the United States are hanging by a thin thread and it could snap at any moment. This was the view of Stephen Cohen as we sat having coffee, watching the midday traffic negotiate the multiple signals around Dupont Circle’s inner and outer rings. My response was that it would be good if that thread snapped: it would lead to US-Pakistan relations being based on a more realistic appreciation of each other’s interests and end the charade of strategic partnership. Cohen agreed with me.
Whether there can be a ‘soft landing’ to US-Pakistan relations will, of course, depend on the ground situation and how Pakistan, which claims to hold the key to peace in Afghanistan, plays its cards. That raises the question of Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy. More specifically, what is it?
Ten years after 9/11, there is no document that even outlines what Pakistan currently wants in Afghanistan and how it intends to achieve those goals. Note, I don’t count the infamous 16-pager which General Ashfaq Pervaiz Kayani handed over to US President Barack Obama, and which he shared with some of us during a briefing last year. That document didn’t have anything new even as it attempted to nuance some of Pakistan’s known positions.
A lot has changed on the ground since we were made privy to that document. A CIA contractor shot dead two Pakistanis; the US special forces conducted a unilateral raid deep inside Pakistani territory; the US has since indicated that it would mount more such operations if and when required; Pakistan has asked US trainers and other personnel to leave; and relations have nosedived despite both sides trying to put the best possible face on them.
Into this policy vacuum and bilateral tension we now have a report co-convened by the United States Institute for Peace (USIP) and Jinnah Institute (JI). The report, titled, Pakistan, the United States and the Endgame in Afghanistan: Perceptions of Pakistan’s Foreign Policy Elite is the first serious attempt to understand Pakistan’s perspective on Afghanistan and how that impacts Islamabad’s relations with Washington.
The project, co-directed by Moeed Yusuf, who is also the principal author of the report and South Asia advisor at USIP (the other authors are Huma Yusuf and Salman Zaidi), and Sherry Rehman, the founding president of JI, is significant because it gets its input from multiple round tables involving Pakistani policy experts and presents a picture that can be said to be fairly representative of how Pakistan looks at the situation in the region as well as the areas of convergence and divergence between Islamabad and Washington.
The report makes it clear that Pakistan does not want a settlement in Afghanistan to have negative fallout for it. This essentially means that any government in Kabul should not be antagonistic to Pakistan and should not allow its territory to be used against Pakistani state interests. The report finds that these umbrella objects lead Pakistan to pursue three outcomes: Pakistan’s interests are best served by a relatively stable government in Kabul that is not hostile to Pakistan; Pakistan wants a negotiated political settlement with adequate Pashtun representation. This means that, given the current situation, a sustainable arrangement would necessarily require the main Taliban factions to be part of the new political arrangement; while India has a role to play in Afghanistan’s economic progress and prosperity, the present Indian engagement attempts to outflank Pakistan, which is unacceptable.
The report also makes it clear that the Pakistani policy elite perceives America’s Afghanistan strategy to be inconsistent and counterproductive to Pakistan’s interests. While there is recognition that US operations over the past year have degraded the Taliban’s capacity, no one is convinced that this will force the main Taliban factions to negotiate on America’s terms.
There is also a sense that Pakistan’s prospects for a successful endgame in Afghanistan might be compromised by the US retaining some long-term security presence in Afghanistan. This, as the report points out, would likely create unease among the Afghan Taliban and countries in the region, including Pakistan.
There is no support for a breakdown of the Pakistan-US relationship but Pakistanis want greater clarity in US and Pakistani policies and consider that to be crucial to avoid failure in Afghanistan. Interestingly, the report suggests that Pakistani policy faces a dilemma vis-à-vis the US. “On the one hand, US military operations in Afghanistan are believed to be causing an internal backlash in terms of militancy and deepening the state-society rift within Pakistan. On the other hand, Pakistani policy elite appreciate that a premature US troop withdrawal would lead to added instability in Afghanistan.”
The report says that the Pakistani policy elite believes that a genuine intra-Afghan dialogue will inevitably allow a significant share of power to the Pashtuns and thus produce a dispensation in Kabul that is sensitive to Pakistani interests. “Based on their perceptions about the current realities on the ground in Afghanistan, those tied to this narrative see any attempts to alienate Pashtuns in general, and the Taliban in particular, as short-sighted,” says the report.
Even so, the Taliban’s perceived utility for Pakistan does not translate into a desire for a return to Taliban rule in Afghanistan. “A bid to regain lost glory by Mullah Omar’s Taliban would end up creating conditions in Afghanistan which run counter to Pakistani objectives, most notably stability.”
However, hardly anyone the authors spoke with seemed clear about the Afghan Taliban’s willingness to participate in a political reconciliation process, or even to communicate directly with the United States beyond a point. We now know that such a process is underway, though it remains slow, and no one knows how successful it will be. But one thing is clear from reports about that process: the Afghan Taliban are wary of Pakistan and do not even want to open a representative office in Pakistan, choosing instead Doha.
This fact does not form part of the USIP-JI report because no one in Pakistan was privy to the three rounds of talks that have happened between the US and the Taliban reps. But it does raise a question about how far Pakistan can influence the process, if at all. It is also unclear if Pakistan’s official institutions would respond to such a development in any nuanced manner.
This is important because the growing mutual distrust between Pakistan and the US, following the May 2 US raid that killed Bin Laden, has raised doubts about the ability of the two countries to collaborate in attaining a peaceful Afghan settlement. While Pakistan still thinks that its support is important in nudging the main Afghan Taliban factions to the negotiating table, it has not pursued that claim in any meaningful way beyond signalling that any attempt by the Taliban to negotiate with Kabul or Washington sans Islamabad would be unacceptable to the latter.
This does not make sound policy in and of itself, especially if the Taliban go ahead with talks with the US and the dialogue begins to yield results in ways that may make Pakistan irrelevant to any final settlement.
The USIP-JI report is a significant contribution to the debate within Pakistan and has helped in connecting the many dots. It would be even better if this report could become the basis for a dialogue between the non-official policy elite and official Pakistan, i.e., the GHQ and the Foreign Office. For the USIP and JI, the next step should be to bring the Afghans and the Pakistanis together to discuss possible frameworks of a settlement.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 30th, 2011.