Restructuring Pak-U.S. Relations

Jinnah Institute hosted its 6th policy discussion on the future of Pak-US relations and invited a panel of leading journalists and policy experts to speak on the issue. Ahmed Rashid, author of Pakistan on the Brink (2012) and Descent into Chaos (2008), Zahid Hussain, former Woodrow Wilson scholar and author of The Scorpion’s Tale (2010) and Moeed Yusuf, South Asia Advisor at USIP spoke about Pak-U.S. ties after the reopening of GLOCs and why Afghanistan remains a central feature of bilateral relations.
Ahmed Rashid questioned whether Pakistan had a coherent policy on Afghanistan. To his mind, Pakistan had three ostensible “˜flanks’ to an Afghanistan policy, based on (a) that NATO should leave Afghanistan, however, Pakistan had so far prevented an easy withdrawal for the NATO/ISAF forces; (b) that the U.S. should commence talks with the Taliban, but Pakistan had done little to facilitate such interactions and (c) that India should not gain too much influence in Afghanistan, however the U.S. has embraced India as a strategic partner.

He pointed out that Pakistan’s policy was “hostage to an internal crisis”, where deep divisions in the political establishment prevented policy direction. He stated that the recent killings of Pakistani soldiers by militants were not sufficiently condemned by the leadership. “Let us be sure that those killing our people are our very own,” he said and remarked how militant outfits like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi operated “openly” despite claiming responsibility of killing Shias. Rashid observed that the end of the Cold War as well as 9/11 provided opportunities for Pakistan to reestablish its foreign policy and make strategic choices. He pointed out that militant groups should have been brought into the political mainstream as has been done in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.

He noted that Washington too was in crisis internally and certain parts of the U.S. administration wanted to take a hard line on Pakistan. “With Richard Holbrooke, there was a real attempt to work out what to do with extremists destabilizing Pakistan and Afghanistan. After his death, there has not been that kind of policy control in Washington,” he observed. “The President has failed to put his seal on the side of peacemakers and the war mongers have been able to pursue their strategy,” he stated.

“There is need for an honest broker in Afghanistan, it is not the U.S.,” he said and pointed out that all of Afghanistan’s neighbours were in turmoil or had too many vested interests. “If the U.S. is willing to pass on the baton, perhaps the EU can make this work?” he suggested. Rashid felt that the international community wanted to bring the Taliban to the negotiation table and saw them as a part of the solution. Pakistan must initiate a dialogue and rebuild trust by talking and working out a modus operandi, he said.

“Saying we need a policy is not really a policy,” said Moeed Yusuf and observed that the international community was blaming Pakistan for the Afghan quagmire. “Such an environment of mistrust and animosity leaves little room for devising and implementing a policy designed to solve such a complex problem,” he stated. Pakistan’s biggest problem was that it had chosen – or had been compelled to choose – actors in Afghanistan who opposed the international community’s narrative, he argued and said that the Taliban were Pakistan’s option perforce and not by choice. “What every side is trying to achieve in Afghanistan is a fairly common goal, but there must also be an understanding that the strategic interests of Pakistan, United States, Iran, India and Central Asia are divergent,” he said and added that the strategies pursued by the U.S. and Pakistan were polar opposites. He observed that the U.S. and Pakistan had resorted to playing “hard ball market politics”, which could be seen as a realist hedging strategy.

He felt that narratives had taken over reality in the Pak-U.S. dynamic and over the coming months, these narratives would become increasingly “hawkish”. While cooler heads have prevailed thus far, the hawkish narratives will eventually win, he said and pointed out that opinion leaders in both countries had a huge role to play in creating these adversarial narratives. “If narratives start directing themselves in a particular way, you then have a problem,” he said.

Yusuf felt that both the U.S. and Pakistan had to stop looking at each other through an Afghanistan lens. While this had been the framework for the last decade, he advised that new parameters were needed in the long run, if the bilateral relationship was to improve. He questioned Pakistan’s influence and control over militant groups and suggested that Washington should “test Pakistan’s ability to bring the Taliban into the room.” Could the levels of violence on both sides of the Pak-Afghan border be “talked down”? he asked and concluded that a recalibration of the war was going to happen after 2014.

Zahid Hussain believed that after eleven years of conflict and policy ambiguity on the part of both US and Pakistan had brought the War on Terror deep inside the Pakistani territory. He blamed Pakistan for failing to pursue a coherent national security policy that delivered tangible and concrete results even though Pakistan was ruled by a military general when the War on Terror began. He stated that Pakistan should have its own national security policy attuned to its own interests and objectives, instead of one imposed on it by other countries or powers. He also flayed the lack of policy coherence in the U.S. by pointing out that the Americans have cited too many reasons for being in Afghanistan. “First it was democracy, then it was Al-Qaeda. For 11 years it has been unclear what the Americans want and now we are paying for the mistakes made,” he said.

He felt that the Salala incident was only a tipping point in Pak-U.S. relations and much of the tension that preceded the GLOCs’ reopening had not gone away. “Will opening the supply routes lead to any solutions? We are ready to acknowledge mistakes, but nobody in the U.S. is prepared to admit that they have gone wrong,” he said. Hussain emphasized that Pakistan must not be blamed for the war in Afghanistan, as there were several other countries involved in this conflict. Moreover, the GLOCs episode showed that Pakistan had given in to pressure.

Three outstanding issues had led to considerable stress in the Pak-U.S. relationship, observed Hussain, which needed to be addressed: (a) strategic differences on the future of Afghanistan; (b) sanctuaries in Afghanistan and Pakistan; and (c) continuing drone strikes on Pakistan’s territory. He felt that both countries wanted stability in Afghanistan, but Pakistan had genuine misgivings and was going to be the worst affected if the conflict was not resolved. He recalled that Hamid Karzai had asked for holding negotiations with the Taliban, but these could not be held as there was simultaneous pressure to attack and kill them. Meanwhile, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan formed a significant force that could not be ignored.

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