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AfPak again

February 12, 2017

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THE Americans are at it again. Troop surge in Afghanistan, policy review on Pakistan, alternating between threatening and bribing us to ‘do more’.

It’s like it’s 2009 again.

The problem is that it’s not. It’s 2017 and the Americans may be about to screw it up for us — again, though perhaps in a new way.


Yet another round of American silliness can have a damaging effect on Pakistan.


The terms of the debate being framed in the US for Trump on Pakistan are nascent but familiar: through the Afghan looking glass and a blame-cum-incentives framework.

To fix Afghanistan, Pakistan must be fixed — and to fix Pakistan, the usual tools are to be deployed. But it hasn’t worked and won’t.

Possibly because the US doesn’t have the influence or leverage it needs, but more likely because the debate we see in public is supplemented by one out of view:

The public stuff may be all Afghanistan, Afghanistan, Afghanistan, but there’s counterterrorism cooperation, nuclear safety and security, and a link to China and India that shapes what can be done on Pakistan.

Or at least makes sure that the public talk of really turning the screws on Pakistan does not translate into actual action.

To really convince itself that fixing Pakistan is not the automatic and inevitable route to fixing Afghanistan, the US would have to really turn the screws on Pakistan.

But it can’t — won’t — really turn the screws on Pakistan because of the other, security-based aspects to the relationship and so the US will never reach the stage where it can disabuse itself of the belief that fixing Pakistan is the route to fixing Afghanistan.

A circularity in a region full of circles and maddening conundrums.

To the extent that the game be played out endlessly — US coaxing, cajoling and pretending it can change Pakistan; Pakistan playing coy; the two occasionally falling out and then sulkily sidling up to the other again — it doesn’t really matter.

Pak-US relations are about where they should be given all that separates them and the little that they have in common.

But yet another round of American silliness can have a damaging effect on Pakistan — because of what it could mean for Afghanistan and what happens inside Pakistan itself.

Let’s work through it.

The Trump AfPak review is doubly damning because it’s back to the future after years of White House disengagement.

Obama may ultimately have reversed himself on withdrawing all US troops from Afghanistan, but it was long obvious that he had no real interest in the area.

That drift allowed other outside powers to increase their interest in Afghanistan — some with the explicit support of the US (India), some with ambivalent American support (China) and some, arguably, by the US dropping the ball (Russia).

Here’s the thing, though: the Obama years happened.

By coming in and starting a military-led debate on Afghanistan that sounds so familiar, the Trump administration is confirming what most outside powers in Afghanistan already suspect: US policy in Afghanistan is somewhere on the spectrum between not-interested and stale.

That creates an incentives problem.

The only realistic peaceful solution in Afghanistan is a negotiated settlement between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

But the only outside power that is fundamentally committed to the post-Bonn Afghan state structure and power centres is the US.

That’s why the Taliban have always insisted on primarily negotiating with the Americans.

But if all the US is going to do is to ensure a tenuous survival of the Afghan government, tamp down the Taliban insurgency when it threatens to get out of control, and give no more than lukewarm support to a peace process — there will be no real peace process.

Which means all this silliness of putting pressure on Pakistan to do more on Afghanistan will come to naught — why would Pakistan expose itself to a decline in influence in Afghanistan in support of an American policy that the Americans themselves don’t really believe in?

Worse, the Trump review is coinciding with a second successive fresh-look perspective in the military leadership here.

Raheel tried and failed to change our Afghan policy. In his early days, Bajwa could attempt the same: a policy review, if not a reversal. It makes sense to change some things on Afghanistan.

But there are far too many hawks on Afghanistan here to navigate a policy review while also coming under pressure from the US to fit its stale and unworkable agenda.

More of the same by a US administration towards Pakistan will only increase the odds of more of the same from Pakistan on Afghanistan.

There’s more. The Afghan debate is one half of the overall militancy debate here.

Let’s assume Bajwa is inclined towards an overall policy rethink — towards a militancy-free Pakistan, in all shapes and manifestations.

But then in strides the American behemoth once again, knocking heads around, demanding actions, threatening and intimidating — all because it wants its (muddled) way in Afghanistan.

That could have a chilling effect on the overall anti-militancy debate that Bajwa may want. When the Americans are breathing down your neck, you have both reason and excuse to delay deeper readjustments.

Just get them off your back and make sure you don’t get too banged up.

In faraway DC and nearby Kabul, the temptation to knock Pakistan around for perceived misbehaviour is mostly irresistible.

But indulging that temptation just as Pakistan may be growing confident enough to have an overall policy debate on militancy may be a classic American mistake.

The writer is a member of staff.

cyril.a@gmail.com

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, February 12th, 2017