From all accounts, the US-Pakistan relationship is going down hill. The strategic dialogue has been postponed. From within the US, there are authoritative voices urging the US to indicate red lines to Pakistan, shore up the logistic routes into Afghanistan from the north, look at containment of Pakistan in partnership with India and Afghanistan and use the leverage of economic and military aid as well as influence international financial institutions to further pressure Pakistan. Pakistan is to be forced to cut links with militant groups and undertake operations against the networks supporting the Afghans fighting the US and NATO in Afghanistan, The announcement of the beginning of US/NATO withdrawal, the vulnerability that this process creates, the need for the US to reassess its strategy and the cost of the war, US domestic issues and politics – all these introduce an urgency that cannot be ignored.
The Taliban attack on a high profile target in the heart of Kabul and the media reports of a very poor performance by Afghan security forces is an indication of how the Taliban are going to act during the yearlong withdrawal phase and beyond if the reconciliation process does not make headway. The US plans to redeploy forces and use a combination of covert operations and drone attacks to keep the Taliban under pressure. Pakistan can be a critical factor for success and failure.
Pakistan has a role in the reconciliation process and any such process that excludes Pakistan is unlikely to be sustainable. Pakistan has to be a cooperative partner in US/NATO strategy because without its active cooperation the strategy will not have the impact the US desires. If the US exit leaves Afghanistan on the threshold of internal turmoil and civil war then Pakistan has to opt for a strategy that addresses the insurgency against it as well as the situation in Afghanistan as one interconnected package.
The obvious hedge against such a strategy by Pakistan is a joint US-India-Afghan government effort to destabilise Pakistan and weaken it from within so that it can no longer pursue any significant strategy in Afghanistan – especially if US presence continues on bases in Afghanistan indefinitely on ‘Afghan invitation’. Most Pakistanis believe that this is what is unfolding and it is this belief that drives the anti-US feeling that is reflected in public opinion and the media – both in the US and Pakistan.
Pakistan is going through an introspective process both within its political institution and its military. There are investigative processes underway that will eventually lead to policy decisions. For many the choices are stark and obvious. Cut with militants, radicals and those considered assets for future use or continue on the present course and resist all pressures. For Pakistan it is not quite such a black and white situation because it has to see the choices in the context of a thirty-year conflict in Afghanistan with inevitable blowback in Pakistan and a sixty-year hostility with India that has created crises but failed to resolve the issues that keep threats alive. The infrastructure that such protracted conflicts create can lead to unpredictable situations in an environment that also has economic difficulties and internal weakness – especially if these are exploited by others.
The problem is the different time-lines – the US wants immediate action while Pakistan’s turn around has to be a gradual u-turn that averts internal upheaval and chaos. The answer perhaps is to clearly signal intent by decisions and actions that bring it in harmony with global regimes, non-proliferation and disarmament initiatives, normalisation of the relationship with India through dialogue, a strategic relationship with Afghanistan, a cooperative relationship with the US and finally a departure from the nexus with undesirable madrassahs, radical elements and militants. This requires a sustained and methodical approach carefully worked out to achieve effects. A resumption of the US-Pakistan strategic dialogue would provide the forum for an understanding to be reached on the future course of action that may be declaratory in parts but has to be largely operational.
The danger is that any such initiative – if publicised and pushed – may lead disruptive forces to orchestrate events that can lead to negative consequences and even to conflict situations between nuclear weapon states. A process that can transcend such events would require a commitment to the longer-term objective and a joint investigative arrangement that can quickly fix responsibility and lead to punitive measures against the culprits. US strategy that involves action against targets in Pakistan without Pakistan’s cooperation would never take the US-Pakistan relationship in a positive direction. Pakistan’s persistence with policies that identify it as a country not taking charge of its internal environment and world image also means that the US and others would continue to distrust its intentions.
Spearhead Research is a private centre for research and consultancy on security, headed by Jehangir Karamat. Spearhead analyses are the result of a collaborative effort and not attributable to a single individual.