PAKISTAN-US relations have entered a new and tense phase following President Donald Trump’s harsh allegations and threats against Pakistan in August and Islamabad’s angry response.
Both sides, however, appear inclined to re-engage with each other. The nature of the future relationship will be determined by the terms of such ‘re-engagement’.
After Pakistan postponed several meetings with US officials, the first encounter was the US-requested meeting between Vice President Mike Pence and Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi on the margins of the UN General Assembly last month.
Vice President Pence was circumspect and respectful in this meeting. However, it was clear then, and is clearer now, that the core US position and its demands on Pakistan have not changed. On the contrary, Pakistan’s readiness to re-engage with the US, and the visible anxiety among some in Islamabad to do so, appears to have once again emboldened US generals, if not its diplomats, to resume pillorying Pakistan.
After his meeting with the Pakistan foreign minister, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson dwelt mainly on Pakistan’s intrinsic importance rather than its role in Afghanistan (although his remark about the stability of Pakistan’s government indicated an interesting dimension of the encounter). By Khawaja Asif’s own account, the interaction with US National Security Adviser Gen H.R. McMaster was more confrontational.
And, even while the Pakistan foreign minister was in Washington, US Chief of Staff Gen Joseph F. Dunford, speaking in the house, accused Pakistan’s ISI of “maintaining connections with terrorist groups” (as if the CIA has never had such links!) and, more significantly, of “running its own foreign policy”.
Someone has obviously convinced Gen Dunford that there is a gap in the positions of the ISI and other parts of the Pakistan government. This is dangerous, because it could lead the US to take ill-advised actions that could disrupt re-engagement and domestic stability in Pakistan.
The US defence secretary, testifying to US legislators, said the US would “make one more try” at changing Pakistan’s “behaviour”, but if this does not work, it has more “powerful options” to coerce compliance. Most of these US ‘options’ are by now well known, as are Pakistan’s likely responses. Deploying these will spell a definitive break in relations.
More revealing was Jim Mattis’s assertion that China’s Belt and Road initiative ran through “disputed territory”. The Karakoram Highway has been in existence for over 40 years; it is strange that the US seems to have woken up to its passage through “disputed territory” only after India’s declared opposition to CPEC.
New Delhi must be pleased; while China has expressed its unhappiness. But, most importantly, this comment has no doubt reinforced the suspicion in Pakistan that that the US is part and parcel of an Indian plan to disrupt CPEC, and China’s access to the Arabian Sea, by destabilising Pakistan through Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) terrorism and the Baloch Liberation Army insurgency.
This conclusion would lead to two others: one, that America’s new desire to stay on indefinitely in Afghanistan is designed primarily to advance its strategic goals in the region against China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan, not to stabilise Afghanistan; and two, that its allegations about Afghan Taliban ‘safe havens’ in Pakistan are designed mainly to justify future US political and economic actions to destabilise Pakistan and disrupt CPEC.
In this construct, former Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s recent suspicions about the rise of the militant Islamic State group in Afghanistan “under US watch” acquire new significance. Moscow has voiced concern for some time about the danger of IS’s extension from Afghanistan to Central Asia and Russia’s Caucasus region.
Iran has long alleged that the US ‘created’ IS in Iraq and Syria. China has been preoccupied by the presence of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement in Afghanistan. All three powers have established contacts with the Afghan Taliban to promote a political settlement in Afghanistan and counter IS and its associates.
Given these questions regarding US objectives, Islamabad would be well advised to define its positions clearly before embarking on a new dialogue with the US.
On Afghanistan, Pakistan’s cooperation should be aimed at: one, the elimination of IS and its associates, including the TTP and Jamaatul Ahrar; and two, the promotion of a negotiated political settlement between Kabul and the Afghan Taliban (who will inevitably want a power-sharing agreement and the eventual withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan).
Pakistan must make it clear that it will: oppose any security role for India in Afghanistan. And, while it will act to halt any cross-border attacks from its side, it expects, in turn, that Kabul and the coalition will halt cross-border attacks from Afghanistan.
On India and Kashmir, Pakistan should insist that the US help to halt: India’s human rights violations in occupied Kashmir; its ceasefire violations along the Line of Control, and its repeated threats of ‘surgical strikes’ and ‘limited’ war against Pakistan. Trump’s earlier offer to mediate between Pakistan and India should be revived or the UN activated to do so.
Similarly, on nuclear issues, Pakistan’s determination to preserve its nuclear deterrence capability leaves no room for unilateral restraint or concessions. The US should encourage India’s acceptance of the reciprocal restraint regime which Pakistan has repeatedly proposed.
‘Process’ will greatly influence the outcome of the re-engagement. Pakistan should insist on a clear agenda reflecting the objectives and concerns of both sides. Both should undertake to refrain from public accusations and insults.
The talks should be based on the principle of reciprocity. (Unilateral concessions will lead to US demands to ‘do more’.) Equivalence must be maintained in the level of interaction. Junior or mid-level US officials should not be received by Pakistan’s leaders. It diminishes their importance and weakens Pakistan’s negotiating positions.
Finally, Pakistan must not delude itself that its re-engagement will change US strategic objectives and policy.
This will only happen if the US and China reach a global accommodation; or if China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan succeed in promoting a political settlement in Afghanistan; or if the US military and Kabul suffer dramatic defeats, and US public opinion obliges Washington to withdraw from “the graveyard of empires” and end its longest war.
Munir Akram is former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.