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Pak-US ties: a complicated path

Updated November 20, 2017


THE Pak-US relationship is likely to back in the spotlight during the next two weeks as at least two senior US officials, Secretary of Defence James Mattis and chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen Joseph Dunford, are set to visit Pakistan.

By now, it is apparent that any senior US military delegation will insist on the ‘do more’ aspect of President Donald Trump’s strategy on Afghanistan, likely demanding that Pakistan take fresh steps to curb the alleged presence of the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network on Pakistani soil.

If presented as a belligerent demand, the Pakistani reaction may be equally sharp — worsening tensions in an already fraught relationship.

A far more sensible approach would be if each side were to draw up a list of priorities in the context of the Trump South Asia strategy and work towards a middle ground.

As Pakistan has rightly insisted, and many US diplomats have concurred, the path to long-term peace and stability in Afghanistan is a political settlement between the Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban.

What is the best path to get to a common end?

President Trump’s strongman approach to problems from North Korea to Syria suggests that he is willing to give the US military a wide latitude in Afghanistan, but there is no realistic scenario in which the Afghan Taliban are defeated by a combination of US and Afghan security forces in the foreseeable future.

That necessarily means a strategy of militarily degrading the Afghan Taliban in order to force them to the negotiating table — something the US has grudgingly recognised, but has done little to make possible.

Complicating the time line are the Afghan parliamentary elections scheduled for 2018 and presidential elections for 2019.

With political uncertainty likely to hover over Afghanistan for the next couple of years, the Afghan government may not be in a position to negotiate with the Afghan Taliban and the latter may be disinclined to negotiate within a political framework that is unsettled.

The combination of all those factors may lead the US to fall back on blaming Pakistan for lack of progress in the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan — an unwelcome situation for this country.

Clarity of purpose and strategy, then, at this time is necessary.

Work with the US where possible to advance peace in Afghanistan and other regional interests of both sides and prepare for a bumpy road ahead if quick successes are not won.

Published in Dawn, November 20th, 2017