EVERY time I write about the US-Pakistan relationship, I am forced to point to the problem of mistrust and the two sides talking past each other. These have been longstanding issues that have held both sides back from moving forward on Afghanistan.
The last couple of months have been truly extraordinary in this regard. Private narratives on both sides are diametrically opposed — and both seem to genuinely believe their positions.
The Pakistani side has been going to great lengths to explain how they have taken specific consequential actions in line with certain US demands on Afghanistan but have got no appreciation for them. The US side is as categorical in maintaining that Pakistan has done virtually nothing.
When I present this puzzle to US and Pakistani analysts, the default is to instantly dismiss it as usual doublespeak and deliberate deceit from the other side.
The Pak-US disconnect is not a case of plain misspeak.
This isn’t about plain misspeak from either side. I have heard the respective positions from extremely responsible officials and policy interlocutors, some of whom I have known for years and trust. I am convinced they are saying what they believe to be true.
Over the past few weeks, I have struggled to identify what may be causing the disconnect. And while there isn’t a way to be sure, we may be witnessing what I will refer to as the ‘2/7 problem’.
Consider a hypothetical scale of one to 10 that represents the spectrum of US demands of Pakistan on the Taliban/Haqqani network issue. As the US began to build up pressure on Pakistan after President Trump announced his South Asia strategy in August last year, Pakistan moved from zero to two in terms of responding to specific US demands.
Unlike the Bush and Obama administrations, however, the Trump administration has set a much higher bar to judge whether Pakistan’s actions are worthy of recognition. While previous administrations may have seen the shift from zero to two as a sign of progress and given Pakistan a break, the current US government is more likely to have seen Pakistan’s actions as merely tactical and reversible — and therefore inconsequential. Their benchmark for meaningful actions that deserve recognition is likely significantly higher — say in the seven to ten range.
From the Pakistani perspective, it may have responded to US pressure by taking certain actions, but predicated further steps on Washington’s response. The US may have seen the initial actions as evidence its pressure tactics were working. More pressure and additional demands would then have been seen as the natural way to push Pakistan to get to seven on the scale. Pakistani leaders however may have interpreted this US response as a case of moving targets. Indeed, this is something Pakistani decision makers often complain of.
If there is anything to this thesis, we are stuck. For the movement from two to seven isn’t going to be a linear progression. Rather, it would represent a real paradigm shift on Pakistan’s part. In all likelihood, Pakistan would first expect some give from the US on its three top security concerns vis-à-vis Afghanistan: (i) guarantees of support if the Taliban/Haqqani network turn against Pakistan once Pakistan flips on them; (ii) some understanding on managing Indian presence in Afghanistan; and (iii) Pakistan’s role in a peace process in Afghanistan.
For the US however, these concerns are gigantic asks that may only be up for discussion once Pakistan undertakes irreversible measures proving its sincerity in tackling the safe havens issue and/or showing the ability to force the Taliban to seriously negotiate an end to the war in Afghanistan with the Kabul government. In other words, after Pakistan gets to seven on the scale.
To break this logjam, both sides need to be sure they know how the other side defines the scale. They’ll keep hitting roadblocks if one’s understanding of what constitutes (in terms of specific actions) seven on the scale does not match that of the other.
Next, rather than arguing it has done what it could, Pakistan should acknowledge it can do more but lay out what it expects from the US if it is to move up the scale. The US should equally plainly state it does not believe Pakistan’s claims that it has turned the corner on the Taliban. It should also clarify what it is willing to do in anticipation of Pakistan’s climb up to seven and what it will consider only after that point (and what Pakistan should not expect at all).
Based on this, both sides should create a joint action plan for what is deemed realistically achievable. The plan should include verification mechanisms that do not leave too much room for subjective interpretation.
Otherwise, the 2/7 problem may perpetuate a deadlock that will further strain ties, perhaps even pushing them to breaking point.
The writer is author of Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: U.S. Crisis Management in South Asia (Stanford University Press, 2018).
Published in Dawn, July 18th, 2018