Future of ties with the US

April 28, 2012

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ON April 12, 2012, the Pakistan parliament adopted the ‘Guidelines For Revised Terms Of Engagement’ with the US, Nato, Isaf and ‘General Foreign Policy’.

Both sides have utilised the adoption of the guidelines as justification for resuming their engagement, suspended since the US attack on the Pakistani border posts in November last year. The US special envoy for Afghanistan-Pakistan (Af-Pak) held talks in Islamabad recently for this purpose.

The US priority reportedly is to secure the reopening of the supply routes to Afghanistan. Washington also wants Pakistan’s support to restrain the ‘Haqqani network’, ‘deliver the Taliban’ to the negotiating table and assist the US in its planned withdrawal from Afghanistan by 2014.

Pakistan’s priorities will presumably emerge from the parliamentary ‘Guidelines’. These are framed mostly in negative terms: no drones, infiltration, private security contractors, verbal agreements, foreign bases, attacks by foreign fighters from Pakistan territory, military solution to Afghanistan. The guidelines also call for “an unconditional apology” from the US and that “those held responsible” for the killing of the Pakistani soldiers “be brought to justice”.

The issues which Pakistan and the US are likely to face in their resumed dialogue fall into three categories.

First, the issues arising from the Salala border posts attack: A US apology; halt in drone attacks; reopening of the supply routes and curtailing intelligence cooperation.

It would be difficult and dishonourable for Pakistan to go back to business as usual without an unconditional and public US apology. Whatever else may be contested, it is incontrovertible that US aircraft and helicopters fired on Pakistani outposts within Pakistan’s territory resulting in the death of 24 Pakistani soldiers. There is no excuse for the failure to apologise for this grave transgression.

On the other hand, on the drones’ issue, both sides need to come clean. The Pakistani authorities must tell their people the truth; past errors and omissions do not justify continuing prevarication. Pakistan should credibly implement the parliamentary demand for a halt to drone strikes, and, if this is not possible or desirable, it should set out, with parliamentary approval, the parameters for the use of drones, with Pakistan’s permission and only against mutually agreed targets.

Intelligence cooperation is usually beneficial, even with hostile powers. But, Islamabad must insist on transparency, reciprocity and set the limits of such cooperation with the US.

We should not, as in the past, find ourselves in a blind alley or a one-way street, nor open the floodgates for foreign spooks.

Finally, to ensure that the Afghan supply routes, if reopened, are used to transport only non-lethal goods, as desired by parliament, some system of inspection will need to be established by the Pakistan authorities.

The second set of issues relates to Afghanistan: North Waziristan and the Haqqanis; talks with the Taliban, and the shape of post-America Afghanistan.

Pakistan has not and, presumably, will not agree to conduct military operations against the Haqqani group. The US demand that Pakistan attack the Haqqanis and simultaneously deliver them to the negotiating table is contradictory. It reflects the senselessness of the ‘fight, talk and build’ US policy. It is only as part of a general cessation of hostilities in Afghanistan, that Pakistan could plausibly insist on a halt in cross-border attacks by the Haqqanis and other groups. Pakistan would probably insist that this be accompanied by a US-Afghan undertaking to stop the attacks by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and the Baloch Liberation Army on Pakistani military and civilian targets from their safe havens in Afghanistan.

As experience has shown, delivering the Taliban to the table will not be a simple exercise for Pakistan. It is only once the Taliban and other insurgent groups are convinced that the US-Nato are committed to full withdrawal from Afghanistan that they may agree to a genuine dialogue.

A cessation of hostilities will have to precede such serious talks with the Afghan insurgency.

Contrary to US calculations, the recent US-Karzai agreement to allow the US to station troops in Afghanistan for another 10 years after 2014 will prove a serious impediment to a genuine dialogue with the Taliban and other insurgents. It implies continued US involvement in an Afghan civil war. But a smaller US force, no matter how well trained, will not accomplish what a larger force has failed to achieve in 11 years. Time will remain on the side of the Taliban. The story is likely to end in an ignominious US exit from Afghanistan.

The degree of Pakistan’s support to the Afghan peace process is likely to be directly linked to the American vision for Afghanistan after US-Nato withdrawal. This is not entirely clear at the moment.

Pakistan would have no incentive to support a regime in Kabul which continues to deny a fair share of power to the Taliban and other Pakhtun groups in Afghanistan. Nor could Pakistan support an outcome that de facto divides Afghanistan between a Pakhtun south and a (US-supported) Tajik-Uzbek-Hazara north, as some influential Americans have proposed.

A negotiated political solution based on equitable power-sharing between the regional and ethnic groups, at the local and national levels, should be the most acceptable outcome in Afghanistan. Pakistan can work with the US-Nato and other neighbours of Afghanistan to realise this option.

The third set of issues impacting on Pakistan-US relations is strategic. In the past, the default rationale for close relations with US was economic assistance and military cooperation. This rationale is no longer operative. US economic assistance to Pakistan is to be cut back drastically, ostensibly due to America’s fiscal difficulties. For its part, Pakistan is no longer keen to obtain US defence equipment, notwithstanding mistaken presumptions ventilated in the American media. (Pakistan does want the money the US military owes it.)

Meanwhile, the strategic contradictions between Pakistan and the US have become more visible to Pakistanis, in large measure due to the events of 2011. American policymakers seek a strategic alliance with India to ‘contain’ China’s rising power in Asia. Washington has endorsed India’s ambitions for Great Power status and regional hegemony.

The US has bent over backwards to win over India, offering New Delhi civil nuclear cooperation; advanced technology access; anti-ballistic missile systems; a permanent seat on the Security Council; silence on Kashmir; a prominent role in Afghanistan, and, for good measure, access through an imaginary ‘New Silk Route’ through Afghanistan and Pakistan (!) to Central Asia. Is it possible that US leaders believe that they can co-opt Pakistan in their ‘grand strategy’ to contain China?

Unless Pakistan asserts its interests and priorities, it is likely to suffer further strategic reversals. It must ensure that the dialogues it is conducting with India and the US do not lead to negative outcomes. Pakistan’s government must craft a multifaceted external policy that responds to Pakistan’s strategic interests and priorities. Parliament’s guidelines wisely call for such diversified diplomacy.

The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.