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Missing candidness

November 28, 2017

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PAKISTAN and the US are making yet another effort to find common ground.

Multiple high-level delegations have engaged in recent months. We have seen reports of renewed drone strikes in Pakistan that the latter has denied but not objected to. In Afghanistan, there has been visible action against TTP presence that Pakistan has welcomed. The US has delinked the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba for the certification process for US aid to Pakistan. The two sides have exhibited remarkable discipline in terms of positive messaging.

Given where ties seemed to be headed after President Trump’s Afghan strategy speech in August, this is commendable. But both sides have been here before. The problem in recent years has been that these upturns haven’t been sustained. Whenever positive momentum is generated, promises are made and expectations rise. Yet, both sides have ended up disappointed and forced back into a blame game.

Can they break this cycle?

I’ve long argued that the oscillations are a function of a contradictory dynamic that isn’t easy to break out of: on the one hand, neither side can isolate the other from a sustainable solution in Afghanistan. So they must work together, no matter how difficult their ties. On the other, they have real divergences on fundamental strategic issues that obstruct sustained upturns. This results in misplaced expectations and the tremendous angst that characterises relations.

Upturns in Pak-US ties haven’t been sustained.

Some examples of strategic disconnects: first, mutual suspicions abound on the end state in Afghanistan. The US has little clarity on what Pakistan ultimately wants. While US policy interlocutors accept that Islamabad does not wish for Afghanistan to return to the 1990s, they also say that Pakistan has never been forthcoming about its alternative vision. The default is to consider this as part of Pakistan’s hedging strategy that only increases US suspicions of Pakistan’s intentions.

Pakistani officials seem to have internalised America’s new Afghan policy as an effort to maintain long-term military bases to keep the region, including Pakistan, in check. US interlocutors wouldn’t agree. Yet, Pakistan’s belief is an important factor in its opposition to a permanent US military presence in Afghanistan.

Next, India. Pakistan says it doesn’t have a problem with India’s engagement with Afghanistan but that India is using the latter for anti-Pakistan activities. The reality goes beyond this. The Pakistan army continues to see the ‘two-front situation’ as a clear and present danger. Especially in the south and east of Afghanistan, Pakistani tolerance for Indian influence will continue to approximate zero. A candid Pakistani talking point would therefore take issue with Indian presence in the areas bordering Pakistan rather than hiding behind a worry about specific Indian actions.

The US, like the rest of the world, sees India as a positive force in Afghanistan. While it recognises the dangers of totally ignoring Pakistan’s concerns, it finds the security establishment to be paranoid about Indian intentions.

Third, there is growing tension regarding how Pakistan and the US see China’s role in the Pak-Afghan theatre. South Asia’s overarching alliance structures are becoming increasingly clear: intensifying US-China competition is pushing the US and India closer, and this is solidifying the Sino-Pakistan bond. The security establishment believes this dynamic will allow it to use China even more forcefully as a buffer against US pressure.

The US would want China to draw a clear link between protecting its investment in CPEC and stability in the Af-Pak theatre, and in turn, between instability there and Pakistan’s reluctance to go after the alleged Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network presence on its soil. This would allow the US to look to China as a partner in pressuring Pakistan to oblige its demands regarding the sanctuaries. Again, the US and Pakistani positions are opposites.

These issues can’t be wished away. But it is also not difficult to see why the two sides may not have had truly candid conversations. For example, a no-holds-barred conversation on the end state may reveal that both are deliberately keeping their options open — Pakistan on the precise role of the Taliban and the US on the ultimate shape of its military presence. On India too, candour may lead them to realise that the real conversation to be had is on the possibility of ensuring Indo-Pak coexistence by delineating spheres of influence in Afghanistan. To go there would not only be politically incorrect but the idea may also be rejected out of hand by Kabul.

The point is that unless real compromises are made, these discussions risk further crystallising the impossibility of a sincere Pakistan-US partnership on Afghanistan. Shying away from tackling these funda­mental issues all but guarantees continued oscillations in ties.

The writer is a foreign policy expert based in Washington, D.C.

Published in Dawn, November 28th, 2017

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