Priority to Pakistan’s interests
In an article, that appeared last Wednesday in this very space, it was observed that with the opening of the Taliban office in Doha the focus will shift from military action to diplomatic engagement between the US and the Taliban. The concluding query of that article, where Pakistan fitted into this equation, is intended to be addressed in this piece.
The answer, given the complexity of the situation, has to be staggered because Pakistan’s role in the Afghan denouement would depend largely on the chemistry of its emerging relationship with the United States, currently in a state of limbo following the Salala incident. The content of the revised relationship would facilitate a better understanding of the prospects of Pakistan’s role in the Afghan reconciliation process. It is thus vital that the ongoing review of our relations with Washington is based on a realistic assessment of our strategic interests in Afghanistan. The first leg of this review has, per force, to start with the terms of engagement.
It would be important not to move from one extreme to the other. The terms agreed to in 2001 were patently lopsided giving, as they did, a free run of our territory. The new terms must aim to remove the iniquitous aspects but need not be so stringent as to suggest a retaliatory mindset. These should reflect a reasonable balance between ISAF’s requirements and Pakistan’s interests. In this context some points are noteworthy.
There should be absolutely no ambiguity on what we cannot do. As expressed earlier in these columns our redlines should be drawn in bold leaving no room for misunderstanding or miscalculation of the type witnessed recently. A partner, or for that matter an adversary, should not be left in the dark about the undoable and the intolerable. If that incurs some downgrade in relations with an ally it should be preferred over an equation that leads to acrimonious breakdowns due to absence of clarity.
Pakistan’s alliance against terror had impacted directly on its people in multiple forms ranging from political polarisation and social disruption to a vivid and immediate sense of insecurity caused by indiscriminate suicide bombings. Accordingly, the revised terms of engagement should not be shrouded in secrecy but must be placed in the public domain. There should be no more surprises for the people of this country in the form of Raymond Davis or the recurrent killings of innocents by aerial predators. No country allows unaccountable operational access to foreign operatives on its soil. Modalities of intelligence sharing may be strengthened but intelligence collection must remain strictly within national control and jurisdiction. Ceding this function to foreign powers constitutes the gravest travesty of sovereignty.
Similarly drone strikes need to be restricted to and directed against individuals and groups designated as common enemy by both sides. These would have to be carefully identified taking into account the recent developments on the diplomatic front. If the Afghan Taliban are now considered worthy candidates for peace making, their exemption from drone strikes should be the next logical step with the exception of those seeking sanctuary in our tribal belt after attacking American troops in Afghanistan. This would necessitate the putting into place of more efficient channels of communication and intelligence sharing across the Durand Line. Broadly speaking, in principle, drone strikes should be limited to Al-Qaeda operatives and their direct affiliates.
Pakistan’s insistence on an apology for the wanton killing of our security personnel is valid. In its latest meeting, the Defense Committee of the Cabinet had unanimously rejected the outcome of the US-led inquiry into the Salala attacks. It is, however, debatable whether we should continue to demand the apology from the highest American authorities. Since the deaths were caused by NATO troops an apology from its high command conveyed through appropriate diplomatic channels should suffice. This coupled with adequate compensation for the victims’ families should come close to meeting our concerns.
Payment by ISAF for the passage of logistical supplies through Pakistani territory should have been included in the terms from the very beginning. Extensive use of our infrastructure must entail an appropriate levy to compensate for the unavoidable wear and tear. This should be preferred over aid payments which emphasise dependence and are subject to mood swings in the US administration and Congress.
The revised terms of engagement must include a separate chapter on the joint handling of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. This blood thirsty syndicate has sown havoc in our cities and towns. Their latest round of blood letting against our security personnel and civilians alike must place this group at the top of our priorities in the Afghan endgame. These are as eligible for drone strikes as Al-Qaeda given their avowed mission to dismantle the Pakistani state. Effective mechanisms for countering this scourge must be included in the revised terms of engagement.
The new terms must feed into a clear vision of a new Afghanistan, which will be discussed next week.
The writer is Pakistan’s former Ambassador to the United Nations and European Union. He can be contacted at [email protected]