A SEMI-ANNUAL Pentagon report to the US Congress on the security situation in Afghanistan has included a troubling assertion about Pakistan-US ties. The report has warned that the US is prepared to take “unilateral steps” in areas where Pakistan differs with the US in how to address the regional militancy threat.

While the report has also stressed the need for dialogue and cooperation with Pakistan, the mere suggestion of unilateral military action inside Pakistan by the US against militant targets is likely to be met with hostility.

The presidency of Donald Trump has already upended many diplomatic norms, while a more militarised approach against militant threats that America perceives globally suggests a willingness to redefine red lines in ties with other countries. Pakistan must respond carefully to any invasive tactics that the US might attempt.

The triangular relationship between Pakistan, Afghanistan and the US has had both legitimate and less legitimate complaints on all sides.

With Pakistan continuing to suffer terrorist attacks, and credible intelligence suggesting that many of these originate in sanctuaries that anti-Pakistan militants have found in Afghanistan, it is clear that Pakistan itself faces a serious threat.

Meanwhile, the repeated attempts to pin blame on Pakistan for failures of the US and Kabul overlook a fundamental reality: eventually, there will have to be a political settlement in Afghanistan. Threatening Pakistan with unilateral action against militant networks that Pakistan is also expected to help bring to the negotiating table makes little sense.

Where intelligence is shared with Pakistan of the genesis of certain attacks inside Afghanistan being traced back to its soil, Pakistan has for some years expressed a willingness to act. It has never been clear why that offer has not been taken up earnestly by Afghanistan or the US.

In Afghanistan, the Trump administration seems destined to allow the US military greater leeway for at least the next two years, perhaps for the entire term of the current presidency.

There will likely be some gains. The military surge authorised by former US president Barack Obama was significantly larger, but the looser rules that this administration has set could allow the much smaller US military presence today to return the war in Afghanistan to a stalemate.

That may trigger an eventual reassessment by the Afghan Taliban, Kabul and the US about the need to restart a dialogue process. It is towards that end that Pakistan must keep its focus.

The Salala incident in 2011 and an incursion by US helicopters into South Waziristan in 2008 have already demonstrated how reckless action can have severe implications and consequences for all sides.

Published in Dawn, December 19th, 2017

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