Spearhead Analysis – 06.12.2017
By Hira A. Shafi
Senior Research Analyst, Spearhead Research
The Pakistan-US ties are once again in an uncertain position. The core differences remain over the path to progression in the Afghan conflict and US demands from Pakistan. As articulated by the US Secretary of Defense during his recent visit to Pakistan– the problem is a loss of trust and this trust has to be rebuilt. Easier said than done unless both sides are prepared to understand each other’s concerns.
Pakistan and the other key regional players maintain that a military solution to the Afghan crisis is not feasible because massive troop deployments in the past have not led to victory. In fact, vast swathes of Afghan territory are under Taliban control or influence including an over 600 km stretch of the Pak-Afghan border and opium production is at an all-time high. The US logic for more emphasis on military operations is to get into a stronger position before a meaningful dialogue can take place. The US probably wants to rely on its vastly superior fire power instead of more troops on the ground. Linked to the new ‘conditions based’ timeline for US stay in Afghanistan and the need to avoid body bags from Afghanistan (that lead to domestic pressure) the US is probably in Afghanistan for the long haul. The Taliban may not be the only reason for the US in Afghanistan. This is something that Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran would have noted and factored into their own strategies.
Afghanistan is becoming increasingly complex and embroiled in multiple conflicts. There are reports of Russian and Iranian contacts with the Taliban and Pakistan no longer has the kind of clout over the Taliban that it once had. The IS is relocating from the Middle East to Afghanistan and an IS-K is taking shape. With Afghan territory under their control and drug money available the Taliban do not need sanctuaries outside Afghanistan and no one is likely to harbor them given the implications of expanded Drone strikes. In this evolving environment Pakistan is rightly focusing on border management with stronger controls and measures and good bilateral relations with the US and Afghanistan. Pakistan has sidelined the threat within its own territory and is continuing operations to eliminate any remnants. Most of the recent attacks within Pakistan are originating from Afghanistan’s ungoverned spaces and India’s declared policy of destabilizing Pakistan is part of this activity. “Severing relations with TTP will mean India surrendering an active card in Pakistan and a role in Afghanistan as TTP additionally provides access to certain Afghan Taliban factions. This […] ensures that no solution for peace in Afghanistan can be cobbled together without India’s help,” (Hindustan Times, Bharat Karnad: national security expert: Sep 21, 2017)
Pakistan is, therefore, rightly concerned with US plans to get India into Afghanistan without a clear explanation of its intent and the extent to which India is to be involved. Pakistan has to factor this into its response because India in Afghanistan acting against Pakistan in Baluchistan and FATA would open up a new ball game– reminiscent of the proxy wars of the past with new much more serious implications. The US needs to understand these regional dynamics.
The ISPR recently released a statement giving Pakistan’s position–, “Unilaterally Pakistan, having cleared all areas on Pakistan side, has restored the writ of [the] state, including steps like enhancing [troop] presence along the border [with Afghanistan], establishing new forts and posts and has also started to fence the border to deny freedom of movement to illegal crossers and terrorists,” PM Abbasi also recently stated that– “We have asked them to share any intelligence about the Haqqani network, we will take action”. More recently the ISPR acknowledged that – ‘there may be elements exploiting Pakistan’s hospitality’. Pakistan is clearly acting positively and its offer of taking action on actionable intelligence should be taken up by the US and Afghanistan.
However, a trust deficit continues to linger in Pak-US ties. On Pakistan’s role in the Afghan conflict General Nicholson recently stated that “We have been very direct and very clear with the Pakistanis… we have not seen those changes implemented yet (safe haven issue) …This is a conversation that is going on between Washington and Islamabad at the highest levels of the U.S. government. So, I would not talk about the next steps that we will take. But you can be assured that my government, the United States, is putting pressure on Pakistan, this is diplomatic pressure, economic pressure.” A significant section of the Trump administration reportedly carries a ‘lower level of patience towards Pakistan’. The CIA director Mike Pompeo recently said, “We are going to do everything we can to ensure that safe havens no longer exist, if Pakistan does not heed the U.S. message on militants”. Such public pronouncements do not help especially if the US and Pakistan have an ongoing dialogue. In this context the visit of the US Secretary of Defense was more helpful and Pakistan should reach out to him more often—especially from the military side.
The US secretary of defense back in October stated that “the US would try one more time to make this strategy work with them, by, with and through the Pakistanis, and if our best efforts fail, the president is prepared to take whatever steps are necessary”. However, recently General Mattis took a more conciliatory stance and stated that he is focused on trying to find “more common ground … by listening to one another without being combative.” He is also reported to have said that “We don’t want transient and temporary changes and Islamabad must understand that while there are significant advantages to changing, the penalties for not changing are just as significant.” His point on rebuilding trust is well taken and should find resonance in Pakistan.
It seems that the recent US step to de link LeT from the Haqqani network in the NDA 2018 was supposedly aimed at creating common grounds between US and Pakistan and giving Pakistan some flexibility. Many also view this as ‘Washington’s desire to keep Pakistan close’– thus highlighting a space for negotiations and understanding. In the recent past the US has also reportedly asked Pakistan to provide intelligence on terror groups such as TTP operating in Afghan territory as a step towards improving border management and security on the Afghan side a weakness that Pakistan has repeatedly highlighted. Prior to his trip General Mattis had stated that “The US remains committed to a pragmatic relationship that expands cooperation on shared interests while reinforcing President Trump’s call for action against terrorist safe havens” It is reported that Pakistan is willing to cooperate with US in a balanced way against terrorism and would maintain its stance that ‘only cooperation will get cooperation’
It remains to be seen what sort of convergence emerges following General Mattis’s visit. Michael Kugelman in his recent article pointed to the trust deficit on both sides stating that “ American demands, no matter how threatening, may prove no match for Pakistan’s immutable interests. Additionally, Washington’s willingness to use tough measures may be blunted by the realization that possible Pakistani retaliations—shutting down NATO supply routes on its soil, suspending intelligence sharing for counterterrorism—could imperil America’s own interests Based on estimates I’ve heard from U.S. officials, the Trump administration won’t start seriously evaluating Pakistan’s activities and considering possible next steps until the first few months of next year. This gives the relationship some breathing room—but probably not for long.”
Pakistan needs a good balanced relationship with the US. Pakistan can live with the US-India relationship as long as the US keeps Pakistan’s and the regional concerns in focus. A long road has to be travelled to bring stability in Afghanistan and cooperation is the only way to do it. Pakistan does not see Iran’s Chahbahar port as a threat to Gwadar nor does the India- Iran relationship bother Pakistan because CPEC is a far bigger project and eventually it is CPEC that will shape trade corridors. For Pakistan safe guarding CPEC is a priority and beyond those involved in rivalries and minor games the big players of the corporate world whether Indians or Pakistanis are focusing on the bigger picture and the future. This is the driver behind Pakistan’s desire to forge good bilateral ties with the US and its neighbors.