Yet again, the familiar question: will the Pakistan-US relationship survive the present impasse? My answer for years has been that it must. The risks of letting go are too high for both. I stand by this. But I’d be lying if I said that the developments in recent days have not given me pause.
I could still make a good case that the time-tested Pakistan-US playbook continues to be in play. President Trump announced his Afghan strategy in a political speech addressed to a domestic audience. He couldn’t have downplayed Washington’s critical views. But his harsh words for Pakistan didn’t necessarily imply a hard decision to give up on attempts at constructive engagement. The State Department’s effort to stress the US’s continued interest in a peace process in Afghanistan and its offer to send a senior official to Islamabad after the speech were positive signals.
On Pakistan’s side, the public reaction isn’t surprising. The mistrust vis-à-vis the US was always going to make a standoffish approach intuitive for many in Islamabad and Rawalpindi. They were also concerned that appearing weak would invite even harsher US rhetoric. Also, the general anti-US leaning of the public implied that a hard-hitting response would check the government’s popularity box.
If this was business as usual, we’d expect the huffing and puffing to go on for a bit before both sides got back to pretending they are on the same page. Even if this is still the plan, there are strong undercurrents that may make the outcome fundamentally different. Pakistani officialdom seems to have derived two extraordinary conclusions from Trump’s speech.
First, many seem convinced that the US is resolved to take Pakistan to task in the short run. The articulations of what the US might do range from diplomatic and economic pressure; to excessive use of drones; to the US even staging an Osama bin Laden type raid to embarrass Pakistan. The national security apparatus is contemplating untoward scenarios and mitigation options.
I asked someone relevant why options to find a conciliatory way out are not featuring prominently. The response? The US is going to create one excuse or the other to come after us. So it’s not the time to show flexibility.
Second, there is consensus across the policy spectrum that US intentions in Afghanistan are sinister: the principal US goal, I am told, is to retain military bases indefinitely — not to settle Afghanistan but to undercut China and Russia. The prime target for now is going to be CPEC. India will be a key partner in this endeavour.
Only one Pakistani policy direction can flow from this thinking: a decidedly negative one for the Pakistan-US engagement in Afghanistan.
These are not new thoughts. America’s worst critics in Pakistan have often insinuated such motives. The difference is that the mainstream is on board this time, including those who have traditionally been convinced of the merits of continuing to work with the US.
The prognosis on the US side isn’t any better. One, perhaps for the first time, one can’t rule out a US decision to act on its coercive threats. While often overlooked in the Pakistani discourse, the US policy debate on Pakistan has always recognised the cons of going down the punishment path. Ultimately, those advocating calm have tended to win out.
They may still. But frustration levels with Pakistan are as high as I have ever seen them. And the narrative on the Pakistan policy has finally converged on the punishment approach. Fair or not, there is a belief that Afghanistan will only be won if the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network presence in Pakistan is neutralised; and that the only hope of making this happen is to use a stick-heavy approach. Even those who are sceptical seem to think it’s worth a try.
Two, because the present stand-off in ties strengthens the hands of those in Washington who have regularly critiqued US policy for being unnecessarily wary of Pakistan’s reactions to a coercive approach. The potency of their argument has always been inversely proportional to the hope for constructive engagement. The current anti-engagement mood in Pakistan makes their task easier: the US must act upon its threats to call Pakistan’s bluff or it will be seen as rewarding its intransigence.
Nothing good can come out of a collision. US coercion has no chance of getting it what it wants from Pakistan; yet, Pakistan can’t pretend it won’t hurt badly if the US flexes its muscle. Meanwhile, the fallout of the increased bitterness will make things worse in Afghanistan. The only way out, again, is engagement. It is going to take some doing in the current environment. But they must — for the alternative this time round may not be business as usual.