Will it be flip-flop again? Not unexpectedly many Pakistanis raised this question after the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s latest visit to Islamabad. Will the US Secretary of State stay the course of what some interpreted in Pakistan as Washington’s review of its Afghanistan policy.
A tentative answer has come via Clinton’s October 27 testimony before the House Foreign Relations Committee in which the US Secretary outlines US’s “three-track strategy of fight, talk, and build, pursuing all three tracks at once, as they are mutually reinforcing.”
However, the testimony has also been accompanied with on the ground attacks by both the Taliban and the US drones. The Clinton testimony does reinforce the view that her Islamabad trip helped Pakistan-US to move forward, although the complications through 2011 have generated skepticism on both sides.
US Secretary’s public pronouncements during her visit indicated that the US did finally see wisdom in partially buying-into Pakistan’s ‘give peace a chance’ policy to replace Washington’s ‘kill-kill’ policy towards the Taliban. The failed ‘kill-kill’ policy had prompted the Obama Administration to scapegoat Pakistan.
However, in recent weeks this scapegoat Pakistan approach was diluted. Finally, in early October a high-level meeting in Abu Dhabi took place between top Pakistani and American officials including Gen Kayani and US National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon. During the meeting, the American side gave a 5-page US roadmap on the Afghan peace and reconciliation process. Significantly, Secretary Clinton’s visit to Pakistan was finalised after this meeting to further iron out further differences and to clear atmosphere polluted by verbal bouts between Islamabad and Washington.
During the Clinton visit, building on the 5-page roadmap, about a four-hour meeting was held at the PM House here with high-powered Pakistan-US delegations doing straight-talking. Pakistani delegation included Gen Kayani, DG ISI Shuja Pasha, Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar and Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir. The US was represented by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, CIA Chief Gen David Petraeus and an Assistant Secretary of Defence, among others. Past the ‘initial clearing of the air’ by the Clinton team regarding the US Secretary of State’s hard-hitting statements implying that the US would attack terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan in case Pakistan failed to do so. Gaps between Islamabad and Washington, on the way forward on Afghan reconciliation were further narrowed down. From Pakistani side, while stressing upon the need to pursue the ‘give peace a chance’ approach, it was made clear to the US that Pakistan had no favorites among the Afghans. That it was looking to support an Afghan-led credible peace and reconciliation process. There was also discussion in this meeting about early convening of another Afghan Loya Jirga as part of the reconciliation effort.
Subsequently, Clinton acknowledged the progress made during the Islamabad talks. In her roundtable with Pakistani TV anchors while quoting Gen Kayani she declared: “We’re 90 to 95 on the same page.” Notably she also publicly ruled out boots on the ground against Pakistan and conceded the US had no evidence against ISI’s involvement in supporting terrorism and that Pakistan also believed that the reconciliation process in Afghanistan should be Afghan-led.
Between Secretary Clinton’s own public statements, comments at the joint Press Conference with her Pakistani counterpart and reports from Pakistani side also about some understanding on the way forward in Afghanistan, the overall outcome of Clinton’s Islamabad visit was generally seen as useful and constructive. However, within less than three days of her departure Clinton’s interview with Bloomberg News was interpreted by Pakistani media as the US Secretary of State going back on her commitment that US too will give peace a chance. Responding to a question she noted: “I have made it clear that there will be dire consequences for Pakistan as well as Afghanistan if this threat from the terrorist networks is not contained, at the very least…” The US Embassy in Islamabad then hastened to dispel that impression.
Clinton’s testimony has appropriately sent a consistent policy message to all her listeners; the Americans, Pakistanis, Afghans and to the Taliban. The message clearly states the Obama Administration’s decision to engage the insurgents in a dialogue. Equally while acknowledging Pakistan’s own security requirements, it again warns Pakistan of the devastating fallout of continued terrorism within Pakistan.
As if heeding her own advice, the messaging has been clear. During her discussion with the Pakistani anchors Clinton had observed: “I think sometimes our public messaging is not helpful. And therefore, we have to be more thoughtful and careful about what we say and when we say it.”
Past the message, the challenge is now of taking the right action. The devil is in that detail. Since last week the developments on the military front, attacks in Afghanistan by the Taliban and the US drone attacks, are shifting the momentum to ‘fight-fight.’ Unless quick moves are not made by Washington and then by Islamabad to make overtures to bring the insurgent groups to the dialogue table, the gains regarding the reconciliation process, maybe overshadowed by a heightened ‘fight-fight’ dynamic.
Meanwhile, the multilateral Istanbul Conference on Afghanistan has, as expected, made no advances on the reconciliation front. So now the ball is essentially back in Pak-US court to lead the Afghan-initiated reconciliation process in Afghanistan.
The writer is a senior journalist and has been a diplomatic correspondent for leading dailies. She was an Alfred Friendly Press Fellow at The Chicago Tribune in the US and a Press Fellow at Wolfson College, Cambridge, UK. She can be reached at [email protected]