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A ‘do more’ visit?

December 06, 2017

A LOW-KEY visit that produced no immediately known breakthrough nor fresh rancour is perhaps the best that could have been expected. The daylong visit by US Secretary of Defence (retired) Gen James Mattis to Pakistan included the usual high-level meetings with the civil and military leaderships and formulaic statements issued afterwards. Pakistan emphasised its position, particularly the problem of TTP sanctuaries in Afghanistan; the US pressed Pakistan to ‘do more’ in the regional fight against terrorism and dangled the benefits of greater cooperation; and the two sides parted amicably enough to allow them to continue the slow, hard work of better aligning their interests to achieve peace and stability in the region. Given a mercurial president in the White House and his preference for military force over diplomacy, there ought to be no illusions that the months and years ahead will be easily navigated. However, as the US and Pakistan both appear to have recognised, there is no plausible alternative to continued dialogue and cooperation.

The attack on the Agricultural Training Institute in Peshawar ought to have been a warning, if any was needed, that Pakistan is still at risk of a major terrorist strike. Sheer bravery and some good fortune prevented a greater tragedy in Peshawar, but there are recurring elements in terrorist strikes inside Pakistan. The problem of TTP sanctuaries in Afghanistan is the biggest of those elements and perhaps the only one that Pakistan does not have the ability to directly address. The Afghan government has made it clear that it expects reciprocal actions taken by Pakistan — a crackdown on Afghan Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan, which the ISPR has denied exist, but acknowledged “the possibility of miscreants exploiting Pakistan’s hospitality” following the meeting between army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa and Secretary Mattis. Whatever the language used to accommodate the sensitivities of whichever country, the issue of cross-border sanctuaries needs to be addressed meaningfully. No amount of border fencing and coordination or expeditious return of Afghan refugees will fully resolve the threat that emanates from Afghanistan.

From a domestic, democratic perspective, there is a worrying, relatively new aspect to the Pakistan-US relationship. Trapped in a leadership crisis of its own making, the PML-N government appears to have virtually no idea about what the civilian side of the state can negotiate with the US as the security issues are wrangled over. Certainly, the reality of Afghanistan dominating the Pakistan-US relationship has long meant that civilians have had a lesser role, but it is discouraging to witness an almost total surrender. Be it on trade with Afghanistan or greater access to US markets that Pakistani exporters have long sought, the ideas appear to have dried up on the civilian side of the state. If meaningful peace and stability are to be achieved in the region, civilian governments will need to press ahead with their views and priorities.

Published in Dawn, December 6th, 2017