“As I walked out the door towards the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” — Nelson Mandela
OCTOBER 31, 2017
How does one characterise US-Pakistan relations at this critical juncture — a medley of conflicts, contradictions and confusion?
It is about trust and about lack of it: ascendant one moment, licking the dust the next.
It is about terror and sanctuaries. It is about logistical support and the alleged Pakistani dream of riding the back of the Taliban to a level of influence in Kabul.
It is about the Haqqani Network and the danger they pose to the prospect of peace.
It is about the India factor and it is about the China factor.
It is about CPEC as an economic vehicle and it is about CPEC as a strategic provocateur.
It is about Taliban and how much Pakistan could and would influence them to the negotiating table.
It is about the endgame in Afghanistan and the beginning of a new one there.
It is about Pakistan’s inherent insecurities and US’s strategic and political stagnation.
It is about the prospect of US dealing with a self-assured Pakistan that is no longer willing to be a proxy in the larger game plan.
It is about each of these things individually and then all of these put together. It is also about a lot else which morphs into the unstated realm.
These divergences constitute a mountain of bilateral and multilateral challenges placed in a crucible of trust which is bruised and badgered over decades of an unequal engagement.
Tackling all of these, one at a time, may require years of hard work while a collective handling will need a radical change both in the approach pursued hitherto, and the mindset that propels it.
It may be wiser to take one step forward hoping the rest will follow. But, are the two countries ready for this, and what should be that first step in pursuit of remodelling this relationship?
Ideally, it should reflect an area of relative convergence which could be followed by others to build on this foundation through a candid, honest and uninterrupted engagement.
As the past seventeen years have proven, the US can’t do it alone. Pakistan can’t either. Deserting the other not being an option, it should be made a common cause requiring a joint strategy and mechanism. The process of rejuvenating a relationship which has been plagued with conflicts and uncertainties could begin here
With the high level of mistrust driving the two countries apart, it is neither going to be easy doing this, nor is it going to come about without injecting a high dose of faith driving them to approach the effort.
What should this element of faith encompass? Primarily it should reflect an investment of over six decades by US and Pakistan in building a bilateral relationship. That should be the rationale for consolidating this bond further rather than letting it go sour.
Talking about Pakistan in a media engagement at the conclusion of his recent visit to the region, Secretary Tillerson said that “we have some very legitimate tasks, some very legitimate concerns that we need their help addressing”.
Conceding that “Pakistan is a key partner for stability of the region”, he went on to say that “it must do more to eradicate militants and terrorists operating within its country” and that Washington would implement its new strategy “with or without Islamabad”.
Apparently, there is overall convergence on the objective of eliminating terror, but divergence on how best can this be done. Pakistan has already suffered enormously at the hands of this scourge which is growing further with the induction of gruesome actors like Daesh and ISIS.
With new countries having entered the arena and strategic priorities taking over, the real objective has been shrouded. The need is to discuss the elimination of terror and the strategy thereof threadbare, both jointly and internally so as to gain an opportunity for introspection because, otherwise, the finger is usually pointed in the other’s direction.
Since the terror groups have been pushed back from Pakistan through a concerted military operation, Afghanistan has become the principal theatre of this war. The new concoctions which have forced their way in have further vitiated the environment. However, the modus operandi remains unchanged: killing remorselessly for spreading fear that would ultimately weaken the opposition to a point of capitulation.
That not having happened so far has further incensed the terror operators who are resorting to using ever more lethal weapons and tricks to perpetuate the mayhem.
As the past seventeen years have proven, US can’t do it alone. Pakistan can’t either. Deserting the other not being an option, it should be made a common cause requiring a joint strategy and mechanism. The process of rejuvenating a relationship which has been plagued with conflicts and uncertainties could begin here.
While there is greater clarity required from Pakistan side, US should also come forth in this regard. What are their immediate and not-so-immediate objectives in Afghanistan? Are they staying on in fulfilment of their China-related paradigm, or are they thinking in terms of leaving after peace is restored in the war-ravaged country?
And what role does the US want India to play in Afghanistan — the very thought being anathema to Pakistan? If things were settled among the US and Pakistan, will the US still feel a need for an India role in Afghanistan to advance its long-term strategic objectives?
And how does CPEC hurt US’s interests in this region? Or, is it opposing the project out of sympathy with India — its regional ally with a common cause to contain the latter’s nemesis?
All of these and some more are challenges which are further complicated by adverse policy statements issued at Bagram and Delhi, or giving the impression of a threesome against one. Facing up to the hugeness of task ahead will be the first positive indication. Can dour is required, not hurling threats. Convergences could emerge out of divergences. The best of partnerships are shaped out of handling worst of disagreements.
US and Pakistan have both invested hugely in building a partnership. There is no sense in letting it fall prey to a lack of congruity which may only be transitory. The need is to remain positively engaged — and put everything on the table for a candid and honest dialogue.
The writer is a political and security strategist, and heads the Regional Peace Institute — an Islamabad-based think tank. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @RaoofHasan