IT is perhaps the most complex and the oddest of relationships. The two are supposed to be allies but are also regarded as adversaries. Some use the term ‘frenemy’ to describe them or refer to their situation as a ‘magnificent delusion’. Often described as a shotgun marriage solemnised in the aftermath of 9/11, the association between Washington and Islamabad seems to have come full circle.
There is nothing much left in the partnership wrecked by allegations of ‘double game’ and ‘deceit’. Yet a complete breakup is not a choice for either side at least for now. Events on the eve of a short visit by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the American military chief to Islamabad are being seen as ominous. The suspension of $300m from the Coalition Support Fund to Pakistan and the controversy generated by the telephonic conversation between Pompeo and Prime Minister Imran Khan are symptomatic of the widening trust gap.
Almost all US military aid has been stopped and only a trickle of civilian aid is now coming to Pakistan. The interaction between the two countries has been reduced to a low official level though military-to-military contacts may still have survived. While the illusion of any strategic convergence has been absent for long, even a transactional relationship is hard to maintain. Like previous American presidencies, the Trump administration is also seeing relations with Pakistan from a purely Afghan prism.
President Donald Trump’s new year tweet accusing Pakistan of lying and being deceitful, and his South Asia policy, has brought Pakistan-US ties to a new low. It is even worse than what it was in the 1990s when Pakistan was under all kinds of US sanctions. The antagonism witnessed now is unprecedented. Washington’s demand for unquestionable compliance is unacceptable to Pakistan. Trump’s policy of using pressure tactics to bring Pakistan to its knees does not seem to be working.
Recent US actions that appear to ‘punish’ Pakistan will not help in obtaining the new government’s support.
Against this backdrop, Pompeo’s short stopover in Islamabad on his way to New Delhi does not raise any hope of a breakthrough in the first face-to-face talks between the Trump administration and Pakistan’s new government. The US has laid down its rules that require Pakistan to ‘do more’ in fighting terrorism on its soil, bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table and force the insurgents to work with the Kabul government.
It is apparent that the US officials will reiterate this demand in their talks with Pakistan’s civil and military leadership. But what are the choices for Pakistan? There are no two views about the need for Pakistan to clear terrorist and militant groups allegedly using its soil. But recent US actions that appear to ‘punish’ Pakistan have not and will not help in obtaining the new government’s support. Stopping CSF reimbursements and issuing threatening messages and humiliating tweets make it more difficult for Islamabad to cooperate with Washington.
Indeed, there is a growing realisation within the US administration that the war in Afghanistan cannot be won through military means, and the only way out of the crisis is a negotiated political settlement. Yet, there has not been any significant US initiative or a clear strategy to start peace talks. Recently, the US established informal contacts with Afghan Taliban officials based in Qatar, but that has not delivered much.
While the Taliban are willing to directly engage with the US, they have not shown any flexibility on their stance of not talking to the Kabul government. The insurgents have rejected Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s gesture. Recent military successes have intensified the Taliban’s intransigence. A three-day ceasefire during Eidul Fitr had raised hopes that the atmosphere could become more conducive to moving forward on peace, but the rejection of a similar move by the Taliban on the occasion of Eidul Azha indicates the hardening approach of the insurgents who have expanded their area of influence in war-torn Afghanistan.
Another factor boosting the Taliban’s confidence is that they are gaining greater international recognition. Not only Russia but some other countries too are now engaging with the Taliban at an official level. That has further weakened whatever influence Pakistan could wield over the group, making it more difficult for Islamabad to force the Taliban to join the peace process. The increasing fragmentation of political power and strengthening of warlordism have made the Afghan crisis more complicated. The growing involvement of neighbouring and regional countries in Afghanistan has aggravated the situation.
More worrisome is the increasing tension between Kabul and Islamabad following an escalation in the Taliban offensive. The battle for Ghazni that took a heavy toll on the Afghan National Army and the allegation by Afghan military officials that a large number of fighters came from Pakistan have washed away some signs of the recent positivity in relations between the two countries. The widening trust deficit has also limited Pakistan’s role in peace efforts.
The likely appointment of Zalmay Khalilzad as special US envoy to Afghanistan also raises questions about the seriousness of the Trump administration to find a political solution to the Afghan conflict. With his well-known biases, the Afghan-born US official is hardly a rational choice to work for regional peace which involves Pakistan. His likely appointment is seen as part of the US tightening the noose around Pakistan. There is also the big question of whether he would be able to bring together the various squabbling Afghan political groups.
It is not just about the Afghan issue straining relations between Washington and Islamabad. The Trump administration has also expressed its concern over Pakistan’s growing strategic and economic ties with China. Officials regularly question Beijing’s strategic stakes in CPEC. The recent warning by Pompeo against any IMF bailout for Pakistan that would help the latter pay off its Chinese debt indicates that Washington is willing to go to any extent to stifle Pakistan financially as part of its pressure tactics.
Notwithstanding these tensions, there is still some convergence of interest between the two estranged allies when it comes to ending the war in Afghanistan. But the Trump administration’s tactics will not help the two sides work together. Managing these troubled ties will also pose a serious challenge to the new administration in Pakistan.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, September 5th, 2018