Spearhead Analysis – 16.01.2018
By Hira A. Shafi
Senior Research Analyst, Spearhead Research
Defining Pakistan-US ties has become complex. The relationship may be addressed under two broad categories 1. Counter terror efforts 2. US strategic concerns in the Asian region.
On the counter terror front- according the US- despite Pakistan’s enormous sacrifices, it must do more. Recent actions also suggest an eagerness of the new administration to apply carefully gauged pressure on segments of Pakistani security establishment. One cannot be certain how attempts to alter structural capacities of an ally would be fruitful. The US also believes that the counter terror initiatives carried out by Pakistan were solely done in line with their own interest—hence ‘selectively’.
One core flaw in US perception appears embedded in its broad generalization of the term ‘terrorism’- it tends to disregard realities such as religious sentiments, ethnic linkages, nationalism and cultural conservatism. Linked to this is the second issue of blowbacks, sensitivities and grievances- which US either chooses not to or fails to understand. Pakistan on its part has clearly stated that it makes no distinctions in ‘terrorism’, it has even asked US for coordinates of these alleged safe havens so it may take action against them. However, Pakistan cannot be expected to act recklessly, violate human rights, and/or transfer Afghan war onto its own soil through militaristic approaches.
Many voices in the US are of the view that coercive measures such as suspending aid etc. are unlikely to yield ‘desired’ results. According to the former CIA Chief of Station- Alex Bolling “It is very challenging to establish a quid-pro-quo relationship with Pakistan with respect to aid. The complexity of Pakistan makes it very challenging, given their internal political dynamics as well as their historical relationship with Afghanistan and the groups that are conducting cross-border activities.”
Following the tweet and suspension of security assistance- Richard Olsen former ambassador to Pakistan stated that “Pakistan, like most countries, reacts very badly to public attempts to force its hand. It is likely to respond by showing how it can truly undercut our position in Afghanistan…The United States can address Afghanistan only with a political initiative. The ultimate answer to the Pakistan conundrum is to start a diplomatic initiative to bring peace to Afghanistan by opening talks with the Taliban. Much of diplomacy is taking away the other side’s talking points, or excuses.”
Pakistan also recollects its own usefulness to the US– one quoted excerpt from the CENTCOM gives extracts of some key reminders:
- Making available five air bases as well as services that included 0.4 million liters of aviation fuel per day and an air corridor that covered two-thirds of the country.
- Facilities at Pasni on the coast for landing 8,000 U.S marines and their equipment.
- Carrying out 99 raids to capture and hand over 420 foreign suspects to the U.S in the first year alone. The practice was continued afterwards.
- Established 665 military check posts along the Afghan border each comprising 40 men.
- In CENTCOM’s words, ‘In spite of ominous threat on Eastern Border, Pakistan is maintaining a sizeable portion of her strategic forces on Western Border.’ She has mounted major operations in the region costing the lives of 8,000 troops, more than three times what the U.S has lost.
- In addition, according to CENTCOM, in 2002 alone, ‘Pakistan’s economy suffered a loss of over US$ 10 billion. Major losses were caused to the civil aviation, tourism, investment and shipping due to rise in the rates of insurance. Besides this, Pakistani exports also suffered adversely and foreign investments experienced a visible decline’ The hemorrhaging has continued since then.
Despite the US perception, that Pakistan acted solely in its own interests against such groups. It is noteworthy that the Afghan invasion not only exacerbated radicalism but also increased the emergence of ‘terror groups’—several of which Pakistan has dismantled.
Anthony Cordesman has shed light on the worst case scenario that may surface if deteriorating trends continue , he states that “The practical issues affecting any hardline approach towards Pakistan are (a) what can the U.S. actually do that will matter enough to really change Pakistani behavior, and (b) what will happen if the Pakistanis respond by limiting U.S. access to Pakistan’s airspace, ports and land routes; giving more freedom of action and support to the Taliban and other threats to Afghanistan; and/or titling even more towards China.”
Thus on the counter terror front, the rupture of Pak-US ties seems counterproductive and the only way forward to sensibly tackle genuine terrorism issues is through cooperation.
George Friedman in his recent article has stated an interesting point– in his view “At this point, the United States is looking for an endgame in Afghanistan. It has spent 16 years fighting a war but has not yet achieved its goals. The U.S. will no longer devote large numbers of troops because large numbers of troops failed before. It is instead creating smaller, highly focused units designed to cripple certain factions of the Taliban and force some sort of politically acceptable outcome. The more tactical the approach, the more the U.S. needs Pakistani cooperation. Pakistan is not prepared to do that, since a U.S. departure would leave Pakistan facing strong hostile forces on its border.”
This statement consolidates the need for Pak-US cooperation in countering terrorism. However, the statement builds on the notion that the US is seeking an exit— this is the second core area that is mired in speculations and requires clarity in order to shape a harmonized/revived Pak-US strategic partnership.
Over the past months, several statements have been made by key US officials highlighting the requirement to maintain a physical presence in the region, in light of broader strategic concerns. Recently, two important documents namely the Trump Administration’s National Security Strategy and the DoD report on ‘Enhancing Security and Stability of Afghanistan’ highlight an interlinked view of US regional concerns and its Afghan centric aims.
The NSS 2017 discusses in detail the US China and Russia centric threat perceptions.
Whereas, some noteworthy excerpts from the DoD Dec 2017 report ‘ Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan’ state that “ DoD will be a part of a whole-of-government, regional strategy to isolate the Taliban from sources of external support … Our military-to-military relationship with Pakistan remains critical to the success of our mutual interests in the region. To move forward, we must see fundamental changes in the way Pakistan deals with terrorist safe-havens in its territory. To induce that change, we will work across the U.S. Government, using a range of tools to expand our cooperation with Pakistan in areas where our interests converge and to take unilateral steps in areas of divergence”
“General Nicholson.. assesses that the exploitation of ungoverned sanctuaries outside of Afghanistan by terrorists and Afghan insurgents remains the single greatest external threat to the coalition campaign.” Separately, during a recent press conference General Mattis also negated the strength of Afghan Taliban stating that “They don’t even own near half of Afghanistan.”
The report also states that— “During the reporting period, Russia continued to seek ways to undermine U.S. … China’s low, but increasing levels of military, economic, and political engagement in Afghanistan are driven by domestic security… Central Asia continues to be important for U.S. security interests based on our continued need for access via the Northern Distribution Network (NDN).
Iran and the United States share certain interests in Afghanistan such as counter narcotics. However, Iran seeks to expand its influence and limit U.S. influence and military presence, particularly in western Afghanistan. Although U.S. and Iranian political dynamics are not conducive to direct coordination on areas of mutual interest in Afghanistan, the United States and its Afghan partners could explore ways to leverage Iran’s interests in support of U.S. and Afghan objectives in the areas of counter narcotics, economic development, and counterterrorism.
India is Afghanistan’s most reliable regional partner and the largest contributor of development assistance in the region… The new South Asia policy highlighted our relationship with India and called on India to provide more assistance to the international efforts in Afghanistan…”
The US discusses the role of Pakistan primarily through the Afghan prism; Pakistan also tends to respond as such. The current US ‘tactical approaches’ seem in line with its various aspired strategic objectives. The Afghan policy has already been broadened into a regional approach. However, solely looking at the Afghan issue, US and Pakistan appear to be at odds in certain core areas. Pakistan is prone to risks if it continues to dive further with a militaristic approach into a local Afghan political issue. Moreover, in a complex region where various greater interests come clashing, Pakistan cannot be singlehandedly expected to ‘fix it all’. The US and Pakistan must converge on the definition of terrorism, identify and prioritize genuine threats and cooperate. Secondly, the US may support stringent Pak-Afghan border management mechanisms and expedite the return of millions of Afghan refugees that Pakistan houses, these initiatives would drastically decrease space for misunderstanding. If speculations persist despite these measures, the US may provide Pakistan with proof of its concerns so appropriate actions may be taken. Surprisingly, one of the most commonly used terms ‘Afghan Taliban’ lacks a coherent definition. It is seen as a fluid coalition of various Afghan groups seeking a certain type of political dispensation, what role can Pakistan realistically play in resolving Afghanistan’s multifaceted and intricate political crisis? The US must support a genuine Afghan led and owned political reconciliation process and assist it by improving socio economic conditions of the war ravaged nation.
The US and Pakistan are also at odds with some of their broader objectives. Pakistan’s ties with China and US ties with India carry the potential to exacerbate security concerns under the current circumstances.
Pakistan needs to keep in view a broader regional view and developments for devising appropriate options. The US also needs to assuage India-Pakistan tensions and help establish a more cooperative framework in the region. Recently, much has been published by various media outlets- some painting a grim picture of the Pak-US ties, while others seem to be preparing for ‘the worst case scenarios’. It is unlikely that the US will be too eager to cause a complete rupture in ties. Pakistan may also continue to candidly express its concerns and work towards finding common grounds, and at the same time account for contingency plans in tackling various threats and reversing unfavorable policies.
Both countries need to be aware of the fact that publicly aired opinions by policy makers can create a hostile environment in each other’s country and that in Pakistan there is a growing perception that there is a US-India-Afghan government nexus acting against Pakistan’s interests and that there is Afghan NDS and Indian RAW collusion behind the terrorist acts in Pakistan and other covert destabilization activities.