As details of the Nato summit in Chicago still emerge, Nato has agreed to hand over control of Afghanistan to its own security forces by the middle of next year. Though called primarily to discuss the post-2014 strategy for Afghanistan, the Chicago summit spent no less time during its informal sessions discussing Pakistan, whose ties with the US and Nato have been in a free fall since the Salala attack. The summit declaration included Pakistan among the countries having “an important role in ensuring enduring peace, stability and security in Afghanistan and in facilitating the completion of the transition process”. Nato Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen also made it clear that Nato was “counting on Pakistan’s commitment to support ISAF and Nato efforts in Afghanistan”, while demanding “reopening of the land routes very soon, because we need these”.
While diplomatic niceties protected President Asif Ali Zardari from public criticism, US and Nato officials made known their frustration with Pakistan for failing to act on its promise to reopen the critically-needed Nato supply routes and continuing to support the Haqqani network.
The White House annoyance with Pakistan was also evident from the kind of briefing given to the media, which claimed that President Barack Obama would not receive President Zardari. The two leaders did, however, have a brief chat, which was used by Obama to inform the press that he had emphasised the “need to work through tensions that have arisen”, adding that President Zardari had assured him of “his belief that these issues can be worked through”. But in a thinly veiled warning, President Obama declared that he did “not want to paper over real challenges”, while pointing out that “it was in Pakistan’s interest to see that they were not consumed by extremism in their midst”.
Regarding Afghanistan, President Obama has admittedly lowered American expectations, no longer viewing it as the “war of necessity”. Nor is he willing to buy the argument advocated by his generals that a troop ‘surge’ was likely to turn the tide in Afghanistan, though he was smart enough to let them try out this option earlier. President Obama has no interest in ‘remaking’ Afghanistan but remains deeply concerned about Pakistan. As his National Security Council Chief, Tom Donilon, confirmed prior to the summit, the US “goal is to have an Afghanistan that has a degree of stability such that forces like al Qaeda and associated groups cannot have safe havens unimpeded, which would threaten the region and threaten US and other interests in the world”. In other words, the US will focus, henceforth, on Afghan security and much less on its social sector.
This would not, however, mean any diminution of concern with Pakistan, as confirmed by President Obama in his post-summit comments. In fact, White House sources have confirmed that he has come around to what Bruce Riedel — a counterterrorism adviser and confidant — had warned him about, namely, that it is Pakistan more than Afghanistan that the US should be worried about. Moreover, with US problems likely to worsen in Afghanistan, the refrain to ‘do more’ would surely intensify, along with threats and warnings.
At the summit, President Zardari sought to shield himself behind the parliament’s resolutions but there were no takers for this. The government should have recognised the nation’s inherent limitations and its inability to stand up to US pressure before engaging in rhetorical flourishes that have placed it in a bind. With American patience wearing thin, further dithering and lack of clarity that has at present characterised our policy would be disastrous for the short term as well as long term future. Nato can congratulate itself for having agreed on an ‘irreversible’ path out of a decade-long, unpopular war. Now, it is time for us to opt for similar rational thinking and ‘hard’ decisions on what ails us at home, along with skilful diplomacy to enhance our options.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 23rd, 2012.