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Three to tango

December 20, 2018

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The writer, a former ambassador, is adjunct faculty Georgetown and Syracuse University.
The writer, a former ambassador, is adjunct faculty Georgetown and Syracuse University.

TALKS between the United States and the Afghan Taliban have begun. Where will they lead is a question that depends largely on a player who is not even there — as a negotiator that is. Pakistan cannot bring peace to Afghanistan but it can certainly block it. And, in Washington’s eyes, that is what it has done all these years. The US has tried to coerce Pakistan to change its stance but it has not blinked.

For all his anti-Pakistan rhetoric, the US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad knows the history of Afghanistan and that of relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan well enough to recognise that dialling up the pain for Pakistan has had its limits. And Washington does not want to wait for peace forever though it may be in no hurry to leave. Hence a new tack for Pakistan.

The question is, if aid will not work as a carrot or stick, what will? Prime Minister Imran Khan has given a clue. Pakistan, he says, wants the same type of relations with the United States as with China. But that is not going to happen.

So much has changed in South Asia, and, indeed, the world. The policy towards Pakistan is a function of these changes: a collapsing world order, a rising India, a resurgent China, a revivalist Russia and the growing menace of religious extremism. In this situation, Washington, unfortunately, finds Pakistan on the wrong side.

The US is not known for handling complexity in foreign affairs.

Yet the relationship with Pakistan is tied to a troubled conflict and the continuing war on terrorism where Pakistan straddles both sides. It is a helper and spoiler in the Afghanistan war, and a target and partner in the war on terrorism. And it is a defender of its own stability, yet tolerant of perceived agents of instability in the region. Hence the complexity of dealing with Pakistan. But America is not known for handling complexity in foreign affairs. As president George W. Bush famously said in response to the criticism of his war on terrorism, “In Texas, we don’t do nuance.”

In his highly acclaimed book, Anatomy of Failure: Why America Loses Every War It Starts, Harman Ullman delivers a damning indictment of America’s public policy process. And two other remarkable books, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War by former secretary of defence Robert Gates, and The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat by academic Vali Nasr identify some of the reasons for this policy failure. They largely blame electoral politics, both by the executive branch and Congress, and a contentious interagency public policy process riddled with turf wars, personal ambition and ideological wrangling.

Pakistan, bristling with issues of high public concern, like terrorism, jihadism, nuclear proliferation, foreign aid and ‘unreliable allies’, and presenting policy challenges whose complexity Washington cannot resolve, ends up getting the rough end of the policy and politics stick. In policy, Washington wants Pakistan to make up for its mistakes in Afghanistan, and treats Pakistan as if it has already joined the China camp. And politics incites Trump’s insulting tweets on Pakistan, and outgoing US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley’s contemptuous remarks in a recent interview in the Atlantic that Pakistan should not be given a single dollar.

If Pakistan thinks it has done enough by bringing the Taliban to the table, it must think again. Just as America has wanted Pakistan to do more, Pakistan too may now want Washington to do more. But Washington may well ask, to use the American idiom, ‘show us the money first’.

Pakistan should not believe Washington is desperate. The reality is America is not losing much in Afghanistan. There is no political cost and the financial burden is bearable. Americans need to stay, to stabilise Afghanistan so that it never again be­­comes a centre for terrorist attacks against the US. As a first step, they are looking for some kind of settlement with the Taliban. But they need Pakistan’s help if they can get it.

Bringing the Taliban to talks was the easy part. Once the talks make headway the US will likely run into a dead end with the Taliban resistant to either American or Afghan demands. Pakistan may then be asked to ‘expel’ them. That will take Pakistan and the US to a moment of reckoning. What does the US offer, if at all, to Pakistan in return? That is where Pakistan’s relations with Afghanistan and India, and what role Washington may or may not play to meet Pakistan’s concerns in the region, will converge. Only then can a true search for peace in Afghanistan begin in which Pak-Afghan relations will be at the forefront.

It was none other than Zalmay Khalilzad who once said that Pak-Afghan ties are the mother of all relations.

The writer, a former ambassador, is adjunct faculty Georgetown and Syracuse University.

Published in Dawn, December 20th, 2018