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The Washington challenge

October 18, 2015

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The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.
The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.

PRIME Minister Nawaz Sharif will be in Washington next week for a ‘working visit’. Normally, this would be a good opportunity for him to secure official and private-sector American cooperation to accelerate Pakistan’s economic development. With improved security and a relatively stable macro-economic environment, Pakistan is well placed today to promote rapid, investment-led growth.

Unfortunately, after recovering from the crisis created by America’s ‘kinetic’ actions in 2011 (Raymond Davis, the Abbottabad incursion and the Salala attack), the Pakistan-US relationship appears to be headed for another showdown.

The first ominous signs emerged during US National Security Adviser, Susan Rice’s visit to Islamabad several weeks ago, during which threats of halting reimbursements for Pakistani counterterrorism operations were held out unless Islamabad acted more forcefully against the Haqqani network. Simultaneously, proposals were advanced to halt Pakistan’s long- and short-range missile programmes and fissile material production. Pakistan was also pressed to act decisively against the Lashkar-e-Taiba.


The Pakistan-US relationship appears to be headed for another showdown.


In a meeting with the prime minister in New York during the UN General Assembly last month, the normally polite and patrician US secretary of state was ‘emphatic’ in his demarche (reportedly thumping the table with his fist while addressing the Pakistan prime minister by his first name). President Obama’s special assistant was evidently even more offensive in a meeting with Pakistan’s foreign secretary.

The American press has reported that the US is exploring a ‘deal’ with Pakistan to limit the scope of its nuclear programme. An American arms control expert, George Perkovich, is quoted as saying: “If Pakistan would take the actions requested by the United States, it would essentially amount to recognition of rehabilitation and essentially amount to parole [!]”. But Pakistan is not in any ‘jail’ and the proposed ‘deal’ is no bargain at all. It amounts to asking Pakistan to compromise its national security in exchange for a good chit from Washington.

Pakistan’s long-range missiles are designed to neutralise the Indian missiles deployed as far away as the Andaman Islands which, if immune, would provide India a secure second-strike capability and a pre-emptive attack option against Pakistan. Asking Pakistan to accept such limits while aiding the build-up of India’s long-range and intercontinental missile capabilities amounts to collaborating with India to erode Pakistan’s strategic deterrence.

Similarly, Pakistan’s plan to deploy dual-capable short-range missiles is specifically designed to break up Indian strike formations in the event of a surprise attack in accordance with its ‘Cold Start’ doctrine. India will shortly hold a large military exercise along Pakistan’s borders to confirm the validity of this doctrine. Rather than discourage such Indian military provocations, Washington again demands that Pakistan disavow its defensive response.

The US has also resuscitated the call to halt Pakistan’s fissile material production. Islamabad has amply explained that its expanded production is in response to India’s ability to exponentially enlarge its nuclear arsenal because the US-sponsored exemption for India has enabled it to import nuclear fuel for its civilian programme and use its indigenous stocks for weapons purposes.

The only deal that can work is one that puts balanced restraints on both India and Pakistan. This is what was called for in Security Council Resolution 1172 (1998). Reciprocal restraint is what Pakistan proposed under the South Asia Mutual Restraint Regime. It was the basis of the parallel dialogue conducted by undersecretary of state Strobe Talbott with India and Pakistan.

American demands regarding the Haqqani network evoke a sense of déjà-vu. For several years, Washington pressed the Pakistan Army to march into North Waziristan and cleanse it of the several militant groups holed up there. The Zarb-i-Azb operation has achieved this. However, to escape the Pakistan Army’s offensive, the TTP and affiliated terrorist groups and the Afghan Taliban, including the Haqqanis, have crossed over into Afghanistan, intensifying the militant operations in and from Afghanistan.

When President Ashraf Ghani asked Pakistan to promote talks between Kabul and the Afghan Taliban, Islamabad was obliged to re-establish contacts with them, including the Haqqanis. After a good start, these talks were scuttled by the revelation from the Afghan National Directorate of Security that Mullah Omar had died sometime ago.

The consequences were predicable. Without the presumed authorisation of Mullah Omar to talk, the Afghan Taliban broke off the dialogue and reverted to the default option of fighting. Ghani chose to blame Pakistan for the fresh uptick in violence, castigating Pakistan’s contacts with the Afghan Taliban which he had himself encouraged. In the US, the India lobby went into overdrive, as illustrated by the vituperative article from journalist Fareed Zakaria in the Washington Post placing the entire blame for America’s failure in Afghanistan on Pakistan.

With its Afghan campaign — like its Syrian, Iraq and Middle East endeavours — in confusion and collapse, President Obama has given in to his military and decided to keep a large contingent of troops in Afghanistan indefinitely. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is often cited as a form of madness.

Pakistan has rightly reaffirmed the general consensus that there is no military solution to the conflict within Afghanistan. The prime minister has offered to continue efforts to bring the Taliban back to the negotiating table. But, as Pakistan’s UN ambassador stated in the Security Council: “What Pakistan will be unable to do is bring the Afghan Taliban to the table while it is being asked simultaneously to kill them.”

The US demands reveal the deeper American alliance with India to contain the rise of China. They may be driven by the desire to score a few more diplomatic successes for Obama’s meagre legacy. They may also reflect an assumption that Pakistan’s civilian leadership is more amenable to American pressure than its military.

Under the circumstances, it would have been wiser to postpone the prime minister’s Washington trip. During the visit, he will be obliged to give a firm response to the unacceptable US demands. He cannot afford another Ufa.

The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.

Published in Dawn, October 18th, 2015

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