Relations between Washington and Islamabad have come under strain in recent months. Some of the reasons that have led to growing estrangement between the two countries are the ever closer United States engagement with India in the context of US-China rivalry in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea; the direction of Pakistan’s fast expanding nuclear development programme; China’s emergence as a dominant player in the wake of the ‘one belt, one road’ project and Pakistan coming closer to China as a consequence of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a programme that would bring more than $50 billion worth of investment to Pakistan.
Also, there has been this impression in Washington for a long time that Pakistan has been covertly extending support to the resistance in Afghanistan. The Haqqani group is mentioned often as having contacts with officials in Pakistan.
Distrust between US and Islamabad has been growing for sometime now. America’s suspicions would mount as Pakistan fully embraces the mega Chinese initiatives and moves to become a close ally of Beijing.
Pakistan’s close ties with China – and the latter’s emergence as a world and regional power – is a reality. The geo-political landscape is changing and new alliances are on the horizon. Pakistan’s economic destiny is irrevocably linked to close relations with China, the rising superpower – at least in the foreseeable future.
The other reason cited in the US charge-sheet against Pakistan – supporting or allowing the Haqqani network to establish their sanctuaries on Pakistani territory – does not really reflect the realities on the ground.
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For one, the Haqqani group operates in three provinces in Afghanistan only. There has been no instance in the last 15 years of any individual or group being intercepted by the Americans or the Afghan security forces while crossing over into Afghanistan or being confronted, attacked or killed in the ensuing encounter. How, then, could such fighters intrude into Afghan territory without being challenged or attacked for so many years, considering that the coalition forces and the Afghan security forces have a heavy presence in the border areas?
The fact is that Afghans have risen to defend their liberty just as they rose to defend their freedom against the Soviet occupation. To rank and file Afghans, there is no difference between the ‘quality’ of occupation then and now.
How would Pakistan respond to Trump’s outburst that calls into question the very basis of Washington’s long engagement with Islamabad?
Pakistan’s leadership has long taken a subservient position when it comes to presenting its case to Washington. The only instance where Pakistan acted in defiance of US commands was the nuclear tests of 1998.
In more recent times, a Pakistani military ruler surprised his American interlocutors when, on a midnight telephone call from the US secretary of state, he reversed the country’s policy of support to the erstwhile Taliban government and went to the extent of delivering Pakistani military bases to the Americans in late 2001 for destroying what was the most pro-Pakistan government Afghanistan had ever seen.
It is inconceivable that the policy of appeasement will be abandoned in the wake of the new emerging scenarios. Such has been the dominance of the US and its narratives that for Islamabad to confront or resist US pressure would seem like a herculean task because the political class has not learnt to separate Pakistan’s sovereignty from its political, military and economic dependence on America.
This is more so in the current perspective when the country does not have strong leadership and as usual the other power centre is calling the shots on major issues of national importance.
Pakistan’s response to Trump’s tweets then would be lukewarm, weak, inconsistent and lacking in strength and clarity. Behind the scenes efforts will be made for damage control and for a return to ‘business as usual’ as soon as possible.
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What Pakistan does not realise is that the US is not pursuing a policy of seeking reconciliation in Afghanistan. It is, in fact, keen to prolong its military presence in that country. The reasons: the US believes that by exiting Afghanistan it would pave the way for complete economic and military domination of the region by China. It also wants to keep a close watch over Pakistan’s developing nuclear programme. It would seek to benefit from the natural resources of the region, including Central Asia, by keeping its military presence in the area and remaining relevant to the emerging scheme of things. And, lastly, it does not want to leave a country where it has expended a huge amount, and carry a legacy of failure.
Luckily for the US, its forces are not suffering any significant casualties – the Afghan forces are bearing the brunt of the war.
As long as the coalition forces stay on the soil of Afghanistan, the conflict would continue. And in that case, projects like the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline and CASA 1000 (Central Asia-South Asia) would not materialise. Not only that, the future viability of CPEC would be in doubt if the war in Afghanistan does not end soon.
For Pakistan, the stakes are high. Aligning itself with the US’s goals in Afghanistan would cause irreparable damage to its security and its economy. By joining hands with China, Russia and Turkey, it can bring pressure to bear upon the US to seek reconciliation and a negotiated end to the conflict. The US’s reluctance to seek genuine reconciliation is a stumbling block to peace. The other impediment is the regime in Kabul which does not want to change the status quo and lose its control, perks and privileges. Another factor blocking a genuine dialogue is the inability of the Taliban to convert the movement into a political organisation that has a manifesto and a hierarchy.
Regrettably there is no vision or understanding of the dynamics of the conflict in Afghanistan. The suffering of the people, the chaos and instability would perhaps continue.
Rustam Shah Mohmand is former Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan.