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Pakistan and US must talk

Updated August 28, 2017

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As the senior-most American military commander in Afghanistan tasked with implementing the US administration’s latest strategy in the country, Gen John Nicholson was likely to have tough words for Pakistan.

In an interview with Tolo News, Gen Nicholson has reiterated a familiar US talking point on Pakistan: Afghan Taliban leaders continue to allegedly enjoy sanctuary and freedom of movement inside Pakistan.

More promisingly, the American general added that the issue of alleged Pakistan-based militant sanctuaries is “being addressed in private between the US government and the Pakistani government”. If that is the case – if behind-the-scenes talks are indeed continuing rather than the US simply hectoring Pakistan – it suggests a pragmatism on both sides that has not been in evidence in public recently.

Indeed, the decision to postpone Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif’s talks with his American counterpart, Rex Tillerson, in the US and embark on visits to China, Russia and Turkey first suggests a typically knee-jerk diplomatic reaction.

Mr Asif’s mission as determined by the National Security Committee is to win support for Pakistan’s official position on Afghanistan – that there can only be a political settlement with the Afghan Taliban for long-term peace – and Pakistan’s concerns of regional destabilisation that the Trump administration’s so-called South Asia strategy will likely cause.

Direct talks with the US, especially at the highest diplomatic levels, could have sent a signal that Pakistan is interested in finding solutions to problems rather than just complaining to third countries about perceived American unreasonableness.

Today, a senior bureaucrat from the US State Department was expected to visit Pakistan in a previously unannounced trip. Instead, Pakistan has chosen to further signal its displeasure by cancelling the visit of the US acting assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, perhaps an unnecessary move.

The new US policy is certainly unfair in its characterisation of the Afghan war, with its readiness to heap blame on Pakistan and its willingness to draw India deeper into Afghanistan without addressing the competing interests of several other regional powers.

However, US President Donald Trump is clearly uncomfortable with having had to bow to the advice of the American defence and national-security apparatus and that may help create the space for a continuing and pragmatic bilateral engagement with the US. As army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa has rightly argued, Pakistan is not seeking America’s largesse, but its fair understanding of a complex regional situation.

While the strategic chasm between the US and Pakistan on Afghanistan is now public and undeniable, there is still space and time for constructive dialogue. The starting point must be a realisation on both sides that absolute positions are neither helpful nor workable.

A strategic rupture is in neither the US nor Pakistan’s interest.

Published in Dawn, August 28th, 2017