Afghanistan’s shadow

29 Oct 2013

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PRIME Minister Nawaz Sharif and the civilian advisers accompanying him received the red carpet treatment when they arrived in Washington last week.

The prime minister’s state visit — the first in a decade — provided an opportunity to exchange talking points on a wide range of issues. Afghanistan and counterterrorism seem to have been at the top of the Obama administration’s list. The Pakistani delegation was no doubt also focused on regional security, Pakistan’s economic and energy woes, and drones.

Mr Sharif returned home with a significant deliverable in terms of the release of US funding for military and economic assistance. Missing from the official joint statement summarising his meetings was a promise by President Obama to make a return visit to Pakistan, but this is to be expected during his future travel to the region.

In the meantime, Washington will be watching for Nawaz Sharif’s ability to tackle Pakistan’s immense problems at home and with neighbouring Afghanistan and India.

Afghanistan continues to both sustain and injure bilateral ties. The United States and Pakistan have a shared history of misadventure in Afghanistan, paying dearly for each other’s mistakes.

Afghanistan is the latest place where we have found one another to be indispensable, partially reliable and sometimes unhelpful allies. Scapegoating is a common practice, but as much as both countries complain about each other, neither can cut the ties that bind without causing grievous self-punishment.

Pakistan is as necessary for the withdrawal of US military equipment as it was for its deployment into Afghanistan. And Pakistan continues to need US help to deal with economic difficulties and internal security threats.

Neither can succeed at counterterrorism without the other’s help. Pakistani and US soldiers who have served multiple tours battling violent extremism have borne the brunt of mistaken national security policies.

Other reasons to stabilise bilateral relations are obvious. As the communiqué from the state visit makes plain, the United States has helped Pakistan to deal with its energy dilemmas far more than China. This has barely been noticed in the current phase of anti-Americanism within Pakistan.

Military assistance continues, but has shifted — and will shift still more — away from hardware associated with conventional warfare to helping Pakistan’s military deal with extremists who kill at a rate that dwarfs that of drone warfare.

As long as it is easier within Pakistan to rail against drones than for the Pakistani military to take action against the targets of drone strikes, our two nations will remain only partial and troubled partners in countering violent extremism.

Internal and external security threats are linked, of course. But internal cohesion can only be accentuated by missteps in Afghanistan or in dealings with India. In Pakistan, internal security is of paramount importance, as Gen Kayani repeatedly says. To the outside world, Pakistan’s efforts in this regard are overshadowed by those who use its soil to carry out violent acts across borders.

It’s hard to recognise mistakes, and even harder to engineer course corrections. There is good reason to suspect that Afghanistan is too fractious a place for ambitious state-building. A grand Afghan political settlement is likely to remain ephemeral or illusive. Familiar divides will reappear because they have never gone away.

Whatever chips Pakistan’s national security managers might try to play in an Afghan settlement have not rewarded Pakistan in the past, and are unlikely to help Pakistan find a brighter future.

Two generations of Pakistani strategic analysts have held the mirage that Afghanistan provides strategic depth, when the reverse has proven to be true. Pakistan has been destabilised by its own and by US. misadventures in Afghanistan, and could be destabilised further if India gains a foothold there to use as a staging ground to support disaffection in Balochistan.

A role reversal of this kind, mirroring India’s decades-long misfortunes in Kashmir, could only multiply Pakistan’s domestic woes. A political settlement, if one can be found, will have to tackle this issue which, in turn, requires improved ties between Pakistan and India.

Nawaz Sharif has great sympathy and support in Washington. The Obama administration will continue to provide assistance to tackle Pakistan’s economic, energy and internal security woes. First impressions in Washington, as in Pakistan, suggest a man hobbled by the immensity of his country’s problems and the obstacles that others so easily place in his path.

Last month, at the margins of UN General Assembly speechmaking, he and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh promised to quiet exchanges of fire across the Kashmir divide. These flares appear to outsiders as contrived to prevent Nawaz from pursuing what he so clearly wants — improved relations and greater direct trade with India.

As long as firing across the Kashmir divide continues, it suggests opposition to this agenda, which is critical to Pakistan’s well-being.

More difficult, by orders of magnitude, will be taking action against extremists that are driving up Pakistan’s death toll. Leaving aside countries like Syria which are in the throes of a civil war, Pakistan now ranks above Afghanistan, and second only to Iraq, in fatalities due to sectarian violence.

The writer is co-founder of the Stimson Centre in Washington.