Following the withdrawal of US and Nato troops from Afghanistan, strategists in Washington felt they were being ‘betrayed’ by Pakistan. Apart from some old ‘grievances’ against Pakistan, the US was perturbed by the way in which the Taliban takeover of Kabul was celebrated as a ‘victory’ in Pakistan. Even Pakistan’s prime minister at the time, Imran Khan, could not curb his enthusiasm over the Taliban takeover, saying they had “broken the shackles of slavery”.
And now, less than two years after the Taliban took power, frustration in Pakistan has reached a level where the country is already reviewing and reinforcing its internal security policies, besides trying to repair its relationship with Washington. It is not yet certain whether or not Pakistan’s romance with the Taliban is over. However, it is clear that Pakistan is trying to revive its counterterrorism cooperation with the US. Apparently, the focus of CT cooperation will be the terrorist groups operating from Afghanistan, including Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari indicated in his last visit to Washington, D.C. that Pakistan and the US will hold talks next month to explore the possibilities of coordinating efforts to combat terrorism. Islamabad perceives that CT cooperation can broaden economic and strategic cooperation prospects. So far, the US has been cautious: it has neither shown much enthusiasm nor dismissed cooperation with Pakistan. The US has facilitated the revival of the IMF programme for Pakistan. It also pledged support for the rehabilitation and reconstruction of the flood-affected areas in Geneva last month, which helped Pakistan raise about $9 billion at the conference.
Though formal defence and diplomatic channels are functional between the two nations, the US has verbally assured its support to Pakistan for its efforts in countering terrorism. However, the prospect of broader cooperation depends on the geopolitical regional theatre and the intensity of the terrorism threat. The US will also be largely concerned about the response of the Pakistani establishment (with which it would cooperate in countering terrorism) and its relationship with the Taliban. And most importantly, Pakistan’s approach on maintaining a balance in its relationship with China and the US will also significantly figure in Washington’s possible cooperation.
The prospect of broader Pak-US cooperation depends on the geopolitical theatre.
As far as the scope of CT cooperation is concerned, the prime objective of the US would be to eliminate the already weakened Al Qaeda from the region and keep a check on the militant Islamic State-Khorasan group. The TTP is not a significant threat on the US radar as it is focusing on Pakistan only. Pakistan will have to convince the US that the TTP is as potent a threat as Al Qaeda as it still has global linkages or ambitions. Interestingly, a view also exists in Pakistan and the wider region that the TTP can pose a similar threat to the Taliban regime as Al Qaeda did in the 1990s to the first Taliban regime. The latter paid the price for non-cooperation against Al Qaeda, and this time the TTP is testing the Taliban’s nerves. Evidently, there is no sign that the Taliban will completely disconnect with the TTP, which will cause anger to further escalate in Pakistan.
If both sides agree on some CT cooperation, the real challenge would be to chalk out a strategy to implement that cooperation. If the cooperation is to be confined to information sharing, then that has already been happening at certain levels. Will the US help in hitting the TTP leadership through drones as it did previously? There are avenues for enhancing technical and logistical support with the US. But the real question is how Pakistan will deal with the Taliban regime, which is already suspicious about Pakistan’s support in the killing of Al Qaeda head Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul.
Any operational cooperation between the two nations could also complicate Pakistan’s internal security challenge and politics. Extensive CT cooperation with the US would be like walking a tightrope for Pakistan.
Usually, it is believed in many influential circles in Washington and Islamabad that the US and the world at large would not allow a state with a nuclear arsenal to suffer an economic crisis for too long, especially when the state is trying to normalise its relations with the US.
These experts often suggest that Pakistan fits well into the US multi-alignment framework. They argue that Pakistan has a long history of bilateral ties with the US, which the latter can use with confidence while managing its chessboard in South and Central Asia. However, such optimism has not helped improve Pakistan’s image in America’s security assessments, especially when it comes to China. The last annual report of the US defence department ranked Pakistan as China’s only all-weather strategic partner, which China can consider a location for a military logistics facility.
In the regional strategic scenario, the Pakistan-China strategic cooperation is compulsive, and their cooperation will only increase. However, maintaining a balance would become more challenging for Pakistan as US-China tensions will grow, and a stage may come where Pakistan will not have the option to stay neutral. However, it can facilitate informal channels between the two global powers if tensions reach a level where formal diplomatic channels give no reason to hope.
To gain such diplomatic strength, Pakistan needs economic recovery, which is only possible with the help of the US, China, and other friendly countries in the Gulf. CT cooperation has a different value than it had over the last decade. Pakistan must find a new key to make itself relevant in the regional political landscape. So far, it is known what the key would look like, but economic recovery and political stability can provide a conducive environment for rethinking processes.
China is more concerned about the state of terrorism in Pakistan, as it is a major threat to its CPEC-related investment. Beijing is also willing to extend its support to counter threats, which Pakistan would have to deal with — with or without the help of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
The writer is a security analyst.
Published in Dawn, February 12th, 2023