With the Trump administration desperate for a quick and honourable exit from Afghanistan, the role of Pakistan is to facilitate it by bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table. Can the unique compulsions of the two countries put back on track what has been a dysfunctional marriage for the best part of the decade?
The US was one of the first countries to ever have established diplomatic ties with Pakistan. Under Pakistan's first military dictator Ayub Khan, the country firmly allied itself with the US In the mid-1950s Pakistan joined the South East Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO) formed on the lines on the NATO, to check the advance of communism in the region. SEATO remained insignificant militarily. Pakistan moved out of the alliance in 1972 when the US refused to support in the 1971 war with India, which resulted in East Pakistan seceding to become independent Bangladesh. Then in 1979 during the height of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, Pakistan again allied itself with the US The relationship was strictly based on military and economic support.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US approved sanctions against Pakistan for its nuclear weapons program which again strained their relations. Later, in the months following the 9/11 attack, Pakistan once again assumed an important role by joining the US in its global war on terror. However, their relations were again under stress due to high levels of mutual mistrust and criticism of each other's strategy in the fight against terrorism.
After China, the United States is the second-largest supplier of military equipment to Pakistan. It also depends on Pakistan to supply its troops in Afghanistan, where the US still has 14,000 troops.
Imran Khan embarked on his first visit to the US as Pakistan's Prime Minister in late July. The visit came at a time when the relationship between the two countries haven't yet fully recovered abyss of distrust. While the US has accused Pakistan of duplicity in dealing with the Afghan Taliban, the consensus in Pakistan is that the US doesn't recognize the sacrifices Pakistan has made in the war against terror.
During the three- day visit beginning July 21, 2019, Imran Khan was accompanied by foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, trade and investment adviser Razzak Dawood, finance adviser Hafeez Pasha, Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and the two men close to him – the ISI Chief, Lt. General Faiz Hameed, and the head of the ISPR, Major General Asif Ghafoor.
According to a White House statement, the visit focused on strengthening cooperation between the United States and Pakistan to bring peace, stability and economic prosperity to a region that has seen far too much conflict. While the joint news conference addressed by Trump and Khan ruffled some feathers in New Delhi on account of Trump's claim that Prime Minister has requested him to mediate between India and Pakistan, there wasn't much significantly different in the US position towards Pakistan. The White House debriefing said that the US reiterated the need for Pakistan to do more and act tougher against terrorist activities targeted both towards India and Afghanistan from its soil.
In 2018, President Trump accused Pakistan of providing refuge to Osama bin Laden and suspended $300 million in military aid to Islamabad. In response to the accusation, the then Pakistani Foreign Secretary Tahmina Janjua noted that Trump's remarks "could seriously undermine" Pakistani-US security cooperation. Pakistan denied the claims and asserted that it had already paid the price for its alliance with the US in the 'War on Terror'.
With respect to the Taliban, Qureshi noted that Pakistan was 'mindful' of American priorities. It is widely believed that the senior Taliban leadership is based inside Pakistan. A few weeks ago, a former Taliban official, Abdul Ghani Baradar was released by Pakistan, signalling the support that was expressed to aid peace talks. The Pakistani government backed the former Taliban government in Kabul, and its security agencies maintain close but complicated relations with the insurgents.
In June 2019, the intelligence received by the Indian government indicated that to avoid being blacklisted, Pakistan has seized properties associated with terror groups and seized 771 seminaries — educational institutions run by the Lashkar-e-Taiba and its fronts, Jamaat-ud Dawa and Falah-i-Insaniyat, and the Jaish-e-Mohammad.
There could be a distant possibility of the Trump's administration restoring some aid to Pakistan in return for helping stitch up a political settlement in Afghanistan. Imran Khan's and the military establishment's ability this time around to live up to the commitments made will have a bearing on the International Monetary Fund's (IMF) bailout package to Pakistan and also its removal from the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) grey list related to the terror financing. Pakistan's flip flops on arresting Hafiz Saeed one day and releasing him the next day under the pretext of "inadequate" prosecutable evidence may have to come to a conclusive end.
- The U.S. is certain that it will need the help of Pakistan to negotiate a lasting peace settlement in Afghanistan. We feel that the three major powers - the U.S., China and Russia seem to have arrived at a consensus on peace in Afghanistan in a way that is inclusive of the Taliban, and has invited Pakistan to join the consultative process.
- We believe that the U.S. would have to work with Pakistan to ensure the withdrawal of American troops from Pakistan and help Trump to keep his promise before the next presidential elections due in 2020. Pakistan too would need to get the Americans to restart the foreign military funding that is has received in the past.
- Both economic and demographic compulsions may have forced a change in Pakistan’s foreign policy. We feel that there is a shift in the focus from geopolitics to geoeconomics after it joined China's Belt and Road initiative in 2015. Pakistan’s economy is drifting towards stagflation and public debt has more than doubled in the last decade.
- We feel that Pakistan might like to take advantage of the U.S. - Iran standoff and propose Gwadar as a better strategic option than Chabahar.
- Faced with global threats of climate change, poverty and nuclear catastrophe, it would be better for countries in the region to opt for a more cooperative mode that would ensure growth and prosperity.
Image Courtesy - Meeting of SCO leaders