Three aspects in US-Pakistan relations have escaped attention in the broad discourse: areas of convergence in US-Pakistan policies; underlying reasons for strategic dissonance in approaches by both partners; and how those variations in approach can be bridged towards achievement of common interests.
A popular reading of the Afghanistan situation suggests that peace and stability in that country must remain the overriding objective of all the players. The Afghans have been in a war now for the last three decades, with a testing period of Taliban rule in between. They deserve their share of sanity and normalcy. They have been mauled by history and by the ‘Great Game’ players. This should equally be what both America and Pakistan must seek. America is now suffering the consequences of involvement in a prolonged war. Public opinion, both at home and abroad, is tiring, and a possibility of another recession because of a depressed economy and a mountain of debt emerging from the cost of fighting two wars in the last decade is growing. Also, there is an increasing need at home (in the US) to focus on the approaching 2012 presidential elections.
Pakistan is in worse straits. Having been declared a ‘front line ally’ in this war against terror it has gotten mired deeper and deeper in the war. In that role, she has suffered some telling adversity. The blowback effect of an unpopular war has been the hardest: bomb blasts, IEDs, abductions and killings are all a part of its sad narrative. The economic consequences are well-documented but what has been most devastating to the economy is the damaging erosion of its economic potential, reducing both domestic and foreign investment. Society is divided along various fault lines with ethnic, religious, poor-rich and civil-military divides rearing their head amid increasing tensions. Pakistan needs peace and stability in Afghanistan so that she can obviate the cascading effect of the war there that has rendered Pakistan’s state, society and the economy to deep fissures.
Peace and stability in Afghanistan remains the most fundamental and central convergence in objectives for Pakistan and the United States. We tend to forsake this most eminent reality and objective similarity when comparing the policies and the imperatives of the war. Why then the dissonance?
The difficulty lies in affiliated objectives, interim interests and inspired commitments. Pakistan and the US currently are embroiled in a one-item deviation — the Haqqani network. Consider that groups of Afghan Taliban inimical to the United States, likely not its interests, remain outside the pale of current efforts by the US to reconcile and reintegrate in the Afghan mainstream. America has attempted contacts but on a selective basis, leaving groups out of a comprehensive effort. Given Pakistan’s precarious sensitivities around ethnic and cultural similarities in tribes straddling both sides of the border, Pakistan cannot be seen to be partial towards a group at the cost of their continuing ire. Any attempt to reconcile and reintegrate must be uniformly applicable to all groups contending against American presence in Afghanistan, including the Haqqanis.
America would like Pakistan to militarily reduce the Haqqanis so that it can save grace when it exits Afghanistan. Pakistan considers it entirely imprudent to initiate hostilities with Afghan Taliban groups when the war is coming to a closure and any such action can only infuse abiding hostilities with tribal Pashtun groups across the border. America can kill its way out of Afghanistan, Pakistan cannot. Pakistan has to continue to live in the region, among the people that form its neighbourhood. America’s short-term interest is to seek a semblance of victory when her 10 year effort in Afghanistan has clearly gone awry; Pakistan seeks to avoid continuing strife in her tribal regions and find space to usher sustainable peace and stability. In so doing, Pakistan is in congruence with the most fundamental objective of the war in Afghanistan while the US is wedded to interim objectives that dominate the more profound central objective of war.
Clearly, these are two different approaches to achieving a common objective. Considering that there remains work cut out for both the US and Pakistan to bring closure to this war, it would be prudent to pursue strategies that suit each in their respective areas of influence. It is popularly accepted that large swathes of Afghan lands remain outside the remit of the Afghan and US establishment, conferring implicitly safe havens to inimical elements within Afghanistan. If America wishes to pursue the military option, they could do so to bring these parts too, under the central remit. The Haqqani group is known to control Paktia, Paktika and the Khost provinces of Afghanistan, with a dominating influence in four others; perhaps it should become the object of American focus in Afghanistan, if indeed that is what America may wish to pursue. Pakistan, on the other hand, wishing to seek a negotiated settlement, should continue to encourage Afghan groups that remain ensconced in Pakistan to initiate dialogue with the central government in Afghanistan. That shall be Pakistan’s remit to deliver following her preferred strategy.
Bringing closure to the war in Afghanistan shall remain only a partial first step in what is likely to initiate another long haul of nation-building in Afghanistan and Pakistan respectively. Afghanistan will need to do so from scratch; most of its state and societal institutions having long been buried under the debris of imposed wars while Pakistan has serious healing to do within. That is likely to take a couple of decades, if not more. The process must begin in earnest only if the US and Pakistan can avoid the pitfalls of becoming preys to a project-based relationship. Typically, as Project Afghanistan comes to a closure and a separation looms, the pain and plight of having been in a relationship of convenience makes the break-up messy. Both must have the maturity to remain wedded to only delivering a stable and peaceful Afghanistan.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 24th, 2011.