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Still a long way to go

October 01, 2012

SINCE the US apologised on the Salala incident, the Pakistan-US relationship has been on the mend. One has witnessed a fairly swift turnaround in the mood of the two governments in the last couple of months.

There have been a number of military-to-military and civilian principals meetings. The strategic dialogue is on again. The two sides have also managed to find some common ground on North Waziristan and the attacks from Afghanistan targeting Pakistani soldiers. Most important of all, they are talking through the way forward on Afghanistan, and Pakistan is reportedly amenable to playing a more active role in facilitating talks with the Taliban.

In some ways the current breakthrough signifies more than just the latest upturn in relations. Those most excited suggest that the post-Salala impasse has confirmed to both sides that they simply cannot do without the other as far as the endgame in Afghanistan is concerned.

The argument goes: Pakistan realised that its strategy to hold its cards close to its chest was only driving it to self-isolation on the Afghan issue. It was beginning to dawn on Islamabad that the Nato alliance was running out of patience with it.

The US, on its part, understood that it was woefully short on time. Moreover, since it was getting signals from the Taliban that they were amenable to talks, it was even more desperate to get Pakistan to facilitate contacts. Also, the Haqqani network’s activities from Pakistani soil had continued to embarrass Isaf forces, and Washington was desperate to get Pakistan to do something about the sanctuaries. There wasn’t a chance unless they began talking again. And then the bottom line: all alternatives explored, peace in Afghanistan without Pakistan’s blessings really can’t work, and post-Salala seems to have brought this message home in some important quarters.

One must acknowledge then that we may be headed towards a qualitatively different place than we were at two months ago. Yet, there are strong currents that militate against making this a decisive breakthrough.

Let me focus on Afghanistan, undoubtedly the most immediate determinant of the health of the relationship.

Congeniality on the bilateral count will largely depend on whether Pakistan is able to deliver on reconciliation and whether the process is successful.

A number of questions arise: even if Pakistan tries, is it in a position to truly pull the Pakistan-based Afghan Taliban back from violence? The reality is that Islamabad has never been confident of its clout over the Talibs; it has continued to say it wants a central role but at the same time it has hedged by slipping in that “it cannot guarantee” anything.

The time to test Pakistan’s leverage has come: if it proves unable to convince the Taliban to lower the temperature as talks gather momentum, it is difficult to see how it will escape a fresh round of finger-pointing.

But let us assume reconciliation talks are institutionalised. What if they fail?

I am increasingly confident that all sides that matter — Washington, Kabul, Taliban and Islamabad — are serious about talking reconciliation. I am far less sanguine about their ability to agree on something that will stick. The most obvious breaking point may well be the end states the respective sides can live with. The Taliban’s obsession with an end to foreign troop presence and imposition of the Sharia doesn’t seem reconcilable with the other side’s emphasis on ‘political process’: power-sharing through elections as the principal means to share the spoils.

If the process does break down at some point, regional actors will very quickly revert to self-help mode and begin to back their traditional partners — read proxies — in Afghanistan as a means of retaining their respective spheres of influence. Pakistan will be stuck with the hardline Pakhtun elements for the most part and will face much condemnation and blame for doing so.

It will once again be on the wrong side of the international community’s preferences and a soft target as far as the post-2014 blame game is concerned. It is hard to envision how a parallel effort to cement a long-term cordial Pakistan-US relationship will operate successfully in this environment.

Added to this is the fact that the default position for Pakistan and the US is still very much one of deep mistrust, mutual resentment and a willingness to attribute the most malign of intentions to each other. It is hard to overstate the outright hostility among interlocutors on both sides. To put it bluntly, large segments of the policy community in both capitals have convinced themselves that much of their problems in Afghanistan, and even the region, are the doing of the other side.

The more I have delved into this, the clearer it has become to me that neither side will be able to escape the intense negativity and will thus deprive the relationship a real chance of blossoming. It is absurd for a partnership that has been so interactive for over a decade that the two sides simply don’t get each other.

In Track-1.5 or Track-2 settings, you will regularly find the two sides make their arguments and the other completely miss the point being conveyed, instead internalising the most destructive connotation of the other’s submissions. This is very different from comparable India-Pakistan settings, for example, where both sides understand each other fully but may choose to continue disagreeing and remaining inflexible.

This may sound trivial to a non-policy audience but the fact is that it is precisely this mindset that seeps into the public domain and makes it nearly impossible for policymakers struggling to make things work in the greater interest of the relationship. Even when they try, the acutely negative public sentiment, fuelled by official narratives in the first place, begins to hold them back.

Without taking away anything from the recent improvement in Pakistan-US ties then, let us be sure that we have a long way to go before we can truly see this as a robust partnership that can remain so post-endgame in Afghanistan. We are more likely to find ourselves amidst fresh rounds of bilateral crises.

The writer is South Asia adviser at the US Institute of Peace, Washington, D.C.