NEGOTIATIONS over the cost of hauling freight from Karachi port to Afghanistan and the wording of a statement of regret or apology over the Salala deaths have become demeaning to everyone involved.

Patching up these contentious issues will have lasting benefit only if a much larger impasse between Pakistan and the United States can somehow be bridged. The central impasse currently afflicting bilateral relations is over a future composition of an Afghan government.

At the rhetorical level, Washington and Islamabad say they want the same outcome in Afghanistan, but at the operational level, the two sides are backing very different horses. Pakistan’s military and intelligence services are betting on groups and individuals that many Afghans, Washington and other Afghan stakeholders will find unacceptable.

Washington, Nato and India are investing in the Afghan National Army and in a government that can prevent the recapture of Kabul by the Taliban. Islamabad is likely to oppose a future Afghan government that is friendlier to India than to Pakistan.

The tactics employed by Islamabad increase Pakistan’s continued isolation and decline. The tactics employed by Washington increase the likelihood of its estrangement with Pakistan. As long as current policies remain fixed, new points of contention seem inevitable between Pakistan, its neighbours and the United States.

Washington is repeating one of the mistakes of the Vietnam War, thinking that an expansion of the battlefield across an international border could facilitate and quicken a successful result.

This tactic is proving to be as unsuccessful with drones as with F-4 fighter aircraft. Drone strikes have failed to influence an Afghan settlement while succeeding in poisoning US-Pakistan relations. Nonetheless, they are likely to continue if prompted by deadly attacks carried out by the Afghan Taliban from safe havens in Pakistan.

This vicious circle will be hard to break as long as Washington measures the success of drone strikes numerically rather than politically, and as long as target lists do not shrink. An instrument that warrants use only in exceptional circumstances has become almost commonplace.

Pakistan is also repeating painful errors. In seeking to secure a friendly government on its western border, Pakistan’s fortunes have plummeted in every way — economically, internally and externally.

The problem lies not with seeking strong ties with Afghanistan, but with the means chosen to achieve this objective.

Pakistan has good reasons to seek a friendly neighbour to the west, especially as ties with India remain problematic, and while Iran might some day seek to exploit Pakistan’s religious divisions.

Pakistan would face intolerable security challenges if Afghanistan, Iran, India and the United States were all hostile to Pakistan. No other country, besides Iraq, has suffered more incidents of mass casualty attacks over the past five years than Pakistan. These incidents could grow exponentially if tables were turned, and if Pakistan found itself on the receiving end of destabilisation efforts originating from Afghanistan.

The means chosen to prevent these nightmares have instead brought them closer to realisation. Pakistan’s decline over the past quarter century can be directly linked to its policies and its allies in Afghanistan. Yes, outsiders have contributed mightily to Pakistan’s woes, starting with the United States, but outsiders didn’t embrace the Taliban, and outsiders didn’t re-direct jihadist tactics against India after the Soviets departed Afghanistan.

The US-Pakistan partnership began to dissolve with this crucial decision to settle scores in Kashmir. And then Pakistan’s investments in Afghanistan turned to dust when the Taliban leadership offered a safe haven for Al Qaeda and spurned Pakistan’s advice. A new generation of Afghan Taliban leaders may well prove to be similarly uncontrollable.

Much grief has come to Pakistan from the assumption that a friendly neighbour is required in the east but can never be found in the west. Some in India no doubt harbour the desire to use Afghanistan as a springboard to cause Pakistan’s demise, but sensible leaders in New Delhi have reasonably concluded that Pakistan’s demise would impair Indian security and imperil its economic growth.

The advent of nuclear weapons on the subcontinent has served to reinforce the territorial status quo. The threat of clashes between India and Pakistan remains, triggered only by spectacular acts of violence on Indian soil that originate from Pakistan.The United States and Pakistan have made poor choices and have suffered the consequences. A partnership re-forged to hasten the Soviet exit from Afghanistan has again fallen on hard times. The United States erred in turning away from Afghanistan after Soviet troops went home, and Pakistan’s leaders erred in believing that their country’s security depended on partnering with the Taliban.

These errors have been compounded over the past decade. Afghanistan is, in reality, a sideshow for US and Pakistani national security, but both countries have acted as if it is the main event.

The writer is co-founder of the Stimson Centre in Washington.



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