IT’S crunch time in Afghanistan. The US has made its intent to push for a political settlement that includes the Afghan Taliban clear. The US and Pakistani positions seem to be converging for real. In recent contacts, both sides have tended to agree that there is a genuine window of opportunity to try and get a peace process in Afghanistan going and that they’ll have to work together to make it happen.
But how do they translate this belief into complementary actions when the US- Pakistan relationship is jaundiced to the core? For too long, both sides have remained suspicious of each other’s agenda in Afghanistan. Their policies have operated at cross purposes even as they have professed the opposite.
To reverse this, they need to immediately overhaul the way they have conducted business with each other.
First, both sides have to start giving the other the benefit of the doubt. The baggage of the post-9/11 period colours their interaction. Both analyse each other’s every move threadbare, with a guilty-until-proven-innocent approach. Mindsets are entrenched — it is impossible to discuss Pakistan-US ties in either Washington or Islamabad without the conversation turning accusatory. The loudest voices specialise in bashing the other and calling out anyone who seeks to counsel introspection.
Pakistan and the US must cooperate on Afghanistan.
Both sides may pretend they can work together constructively regardless of their public blame game, but they can’t. The aura of negativity this creates has squeezed the space to find common ground even where it has existed; officials have been consumed by litigating the past and issuing demarche after demarche to their counterparts, to no avail. What they need is the opposite: park the negativity; stop revisiting the past; and judge future actions objectively, with a spirit of working jointly to help the various factions in the Afghan war to reconcile with each other. This requires a conscious decision on both sides not to encourage or to feed off those who champion narratives that demonise the other. Easier said than done.
Second, US and Pakistani officials need to figure out the practical mode of engagement on the Afghan political settlement issue. The time between now and the Afghan presidential elections in April 2019 is critical. Given how bad the security situation in Afghanistan is and how factionalised Afghan politics is becoming, you’d need tangible progress in setting up a peace process to prevent a meltdown. If so, the US, Pakistan, the Afghan government and other regional stakeholders need to be working on this issue daily.
The problem is that the US and Pakistan have no existing channel to do so. For the better part of two years, virtually all their interaction has been through shuttle diplomacy and almost all of it has been consumed by mutual complaints and overcoming the ensuing deadlocks. This has to be replaced by a dedicated mechanism where civilian, military and intelligence counterparts from both sides engage at the working level to deal with the specifics of cooperation.
We have a start on the US side with the appointment of Zalmay Khalilzad as special representative for the peace bid in Afghanistan. He is empowered as the designated lead and has a team from across the US government backing him. We need a counterpart on the Pakistani side whose job will be to coordinate the various parts of government to negotiate and strategise with the US otherwise, we risk a disjointed approach that lacks coordination of message and effort — a perfect way to hand the initiative back to naysayers in Washington who’ll distract everyone from the task at hand by focusing on the perceived civil-military disconnect and the futility of dealing with the civilians.
Finally, and most importantly, both sides must agree on what they can to do for each other. Two points of disconnect need highlighting. First, the US feels that Pakistan can not only bring the Taliban to the table but also squeeze them to talk to Kabul directly and nudge them to agree to a compromise deal. Pakistan appears unwilling, unable, or both. As of now, it wants to facilitate talks but prefers that the US thrash out the rest directly with the Taliban.
Second, the US says that any move to normalise the broader Pakistan-US ties can only be entertained once Pakistan delivers on Afghanistan. Pakistan, however, wants to get back to a broader relationship now, fearing the US will dump it once Afghanistan is settled. Common ground on both aspects is necessary to avoid creating perverse incentives for one or both sides that’ll hold them back from cooperating to find a solution to the conflict in Afghanistan.
The good news is that I sense real interest and urgency on both sides to make something happen. The bad news is that I have thus far not picked up evidence the issues highlighted are being taken head on. The sooner they are, the better.
The writer is the author of Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: US Crisis Management in South Asia.
Published in Dawn, October 30th, 2018