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Pak-US: up, down or around?

March 19, 2017

SINCE Donald Trump’s election, many in Islamabad have hoped that the tensions and friction in Pakistan-US relations experienced with the Obama administration could be avoided under Trump. This hope was kindled by the effusive call between Trump and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

The policies of the new US administration towards Pakistan are so far unknown. Some of Trump’s campaign remarks about Pakistan were uncomplimentary; others were neutral; most were ill-informed. Given the myriad domestic and external issues that have consumed the fledgling administration, and the accompanying policy and personnel turmoil in Washington, formulation of policies towards Pakistan, or India, has yet to be seriously addressed.

Pakistan-US ties under Trump could go up, down or come around to past paradigms.

Pakistan’s new ambassador in Washington got off to a good start in his first remarks to the press, highlighting the common interest in economic and counterterrorism cooperation. Islamabad has been wise not to push its views on controversial issues publicly, given the US president’s penchant for doubling down on his positions once expressed.


The policies of the new US administration towards Pakistan are so far unknown.


The early indications of US positions have emanated mostly from US generals, who appear to be the only ones able to convince the new president to adjust ill-considered campaign pronouncements.

Clearly, the Pentagon continues to view relations with Pakistan through the Afghan prism. In testimony to the US Senate last month, Gen Nicholson, the US commander in Afghanistan, while asking for additional troops, proposed a “holistic” review of US relations with Pakistan but coloured his call by repeating the old mantra about the “Haqqani network” and Taliban “safe havens” in Pakistan. But he also made references to Iran’s alleged help to the Taliban and Russia’s new relations with them as added explanations for the military impasse.

The tone and content of more recent appearances by US generals in the Senate have been more positive. Gen Vogel, the head of the US Central Command, acknowledged the value and the need for continued counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan and omitted the negative references to “safe havens”. A State Department report also acknowledged the need for continued counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan.

This may reflect an evolution in the ‘ground situation’, including the fragility of the security environment in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s angry response to the recent spate of TTP and IS terrorist attacks in Pakistan, the growing role of Iran and Russia in Afghanistan and some revival of Pakistan-US border cooperation.

A positive relationship with the Pentagon and the State Department is a necessary but insufficient condition for improved ties. Pakistan’s adversaries, led and fuelled by the Indian lobby, continue to work assiduously through US think tanks, the US Congress and the media to prevent the restoration of good relations between Washington and Islamabad.

A recent panel report issued by the Hudson Insti­tute and the Heritage Foundation, two right-wing US think tanks, took hostility to new levels. The panel — co-chaired by Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the US — calls on Pakistan to: elimin­ate its alleged support and safe havens for the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqanis; shut down the outlawed pro-Kashmiri Lashkar-i-Taiba and Jaish-i-Mohammad, prosecute their leaders and stop supporting the insurgency in (India-held) Kashmir; and accept restraints on its nuclear and missile programmes.

The report places responsibility for compliance on the Pakistan Army and, in case of non-compliance, proposes a ban on US military sales and assistance to Pakistan, termination of the counterterrorism Coalition Support Funds and, eventually, Pakistan’s designation as a ‘state sponsor of terrorism’. Some panel members advocated intensified drone strikes and even direct US military action against insurgents on Pakistan territory.

There is no mention in the report of the Indian sponsored terrorist attacks against Pakistan or India’s brutal suppression of the Kashmiris. It advocates acceptance of Indian rule over Kashmir, blames only Pakistan for the violence there and urges the US not to play a mediatory role between Pakistan and India. It does not require any nuclear or missile restraint from India.

Hopefully, the actual policy of the Trump administration will reflect greater balance and objectivity. But this report illustrates the line of attack of Pakistan’s adversaries, and the daunting task that confronts its diplomacy in Washington.

Islamabad must work assiduously to revive a working relationship with the US military, explain its policies at the State Department, secure continuous access to the White House, lobby with friends and foes on the Hill, turn around opinion in thinks tanks and academia, and counter the media campaign financed by the Indian lobby.

Pakistan will need to evolve carefully considered positions on Afghanistan, counterterrorism, and nuclear and security issues that can overcome tensions with the US without compromising Pakistan’s strategic interests. Any ‘deal’ with the US, especially with the Trump administration, must be the result of ‘give and take’, not unilateral concessions.

On Afghanistan, there is convergence on fighting IS, Al Qaeda and their associates. The TTP is now close to, if not part of, either IS or Al Qaeda. The Afghan Taliban’s position is more complex. While their links to these global terror groups need to be eliminated, there is also a general consensus that peace will not return to Afghanistan without some accommodation between the Afghan Taliban and Kabul. Absent such a settlement, war in Afghanistan, and the foreign military presence there, will be never-ending.

On nuclear and security issues, the Pakistani and US positions can be reconciled provided Washington adopts an even-handed stance regarding Pakistan’s needs for credible deterrence against a larger, belligerent and militarised India. If a future Pakistan-India conflict is to be avoided, some modality will have to be found to address the Kashmir dispute and end Indian repression. The Kashmiris have not been crushed in 70 years. They will continue to resist Indian rule, which India will inevitably blame on Pakistan, igniting serial crises in South Asia.

Pakistan will find it difficult to achieve an equitable ‘deal’ with the US if the impression gains currency that there is a division between its civil and military leadership. Such mischief, perpetrated over the last decade by some self-serving operators, has damaged Pakistan’s security and national interest.

The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.

Published in Dawn, March 19th, 2017