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In an interview with Reuters on November 28, Hina Rabbani Khar declared that Pakistan-US relations had been “fully” repaired after having gone through a difficult phase, and had moved into a “positive trajectory.” The two countries, she said, had restored “full” military and intelligence ties and were coming closer to developing what could be “common positions” on a “responsible transition in Afghanistan.”
Similar views on the resumption of a normal dialogue – but without Khar’s superlatives – were expressed by a State Department official in a background briefing on December 3 before Clinton’s meeting in Brussels that evening with the foreign minister and the army chief. The US official spoke of Washington’s wish to get back into “some sensible business” with the Pakistanis and of the need to “systematically identify our shared interests and act on them jointly.”
These positive remarks by Pakistani and US officials have been paralleled by some concrete steps taken by Pakistan and Afghanistan, with Washington’s strong encouragement, to kick-start the stalled reconciliation process in Afghanistan. On Afghanistan’s request, Pakistan has released several Taliban prisoners, with the prospect of safe passage for those who wish to move abroad for talks on reconciliation.
On the US side, the main purpose of the Brussels meeting between Clinton and Khar was to improve counterterrorism cooperation, to give further impetus to the reconciliation process in Afghanistan and to promote economic cooperation between Afghanistan and its neighbours in a regional framework.
At about the same time, the bilateral defence consultative group of the two countries, led on the American side by under-secretary of defence for policy, met in Islamabad after a break of almost 18 months and “identified areas of future defence cooperation for achieving shared objectives.” The working group on energy also met in Islamabad last week. It is to be followed by a meeting of the consultative group on security, strategic stability and non-proliferation. Two other groups, dealing with law enforcement and with economics and finance, have already met in Washington.
All these developments have to do with the impending drawdown of US forces in Afghanistan and the looming uncertainty over the post-withdrawal situation in that country. The US official who gave the background briefing last week on Pakistan-US relations said that Pakistan was “pressing forward because, like a lot of people in the region, they recognise that 2014 is not so far away.” But this is, of course, not a one-sided interest on Pakistan’s part. If Islamabad wants US cooperation in the emergence of not just a stable and peaceful Afghanistan but also one that hopefully will not provide India with a base for the destabilisation of Pakistan, Washington too needs Pakistan’s cooperation for the smooth drawdown of its forces in Afghanistan and for the advancement of its short-term and long-term plans for the region.
It is this mutual recognition that explains the recent thaw in Pakistan-US relations. The “positive trajectory” that Khar spoke about began with the Chicago Summit of Nato countries at which Hillary Clinton presented Zardari with a five-point agenda for mending bilateral ties: counterterrorism cooperation; promotion of the reconciliation process in Afghanistan; reopening of ground lines of communications; measures to counter IEDs; and a bilateral economic relationship based more on trade and market access than on aid, including a bilateral investment treaty. Washington also proposed that, instead of reactivating the dozen or so working groups set up in the framework of the suspended “strategic dialogue,” the two countries should choose four or five groups “that would really make a difference.”
Zardari had no hesitation in agreeing to Washington’s agenda, and in return only requested the Americans for a face-saving apology for the Salala raid. The Pakistani demand for an end to drone strikes is conspicuously missing from the new bilateral agenda. While the government and our political parties continue to posture on the issue, it has practically been put in deep freeze.
Clinton’s talks at Chicago with Zardari were followed by another meeting in New York last September and by those with Khar in Tokyo, Washington and Brussels. In addition, the Afghanistan-Pakistan-US Core Group has been meeting at various levels. A subgroup of the Core Group focuses on safe passage for those Taliban in Pakistan who wish to travel abroad to take part in talks on “reconciliation.”
The war in Afghanistan was declared by Obama at the beginning of his term to be a necessary war. Four years later, a victory in the conventional sense is not in sight and there are serious doubts about the capacity of the Kabul government and the Afghan army to keep the Taliban in check without the backing of America’s firepower. The US has not decided yet how many troops would be stationed in Afghanistan after the planned drawdown in 2014, but most estimates put the number at between 10,000 and 15,000. Besides helping the Afghan army, this force would also have Pakistan’s nuclear installations within easy striking distance.
Another danger Pakistan faces from the US plans for Afghanistan is Washington’s push to give India a dominant economic role in Afghanistan and Central Asia under the guise of promoting increased regional trade and commerce. This project has been packaged as the ‘New Silk Road’, The US goal is to be achieved mainly by removing or easing trade and transit restrictions between the countries of the region. The Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement signed in 2009, which Holbrooke had helped broker, was an important building block in realising the project. As a further step in helping India in its regional ambitions, Washington would like Pakistan to open its transit routes for Indian exports to Afghanistan and Central Asia. The US would also like to see a leading Indian role in the “Istanbul Process” launched last year to promote economic cooperation between Afghanistan and its neighbours.
If Washington’s strategy for Afghanistan has generated new challenges for us, the key role that falls to Pakistan in the US plans for an honourable exit from that country also gives us leverage which we should use as a bargaining chip in our demand for access to peaceful nuclear technology. Pakistan’s negotiating position is helped also by the fact that the United States badly needs transit routes through Pakistan to transport back to the US the heavy military equipment it has accumulated during a decade of war in Afghanistan.
A few years ago, Washington led a successful international drive to exempt India from global restrictions on nuclear trade with countries that are not party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. This initiative was taken by the Bush administration as part of a strategic engineering plan to “make India a global power.” But Washington has so far refused to allow a similar exemption to Pakistan, professedly because of the proliferation activities of the AQ Khan network.
An opportunity for Pakistan to take up this matter will come this week at the meeting of the working group on strategic stability, at which the US side would be led by Rose Gottemoeller, acting under secretary for arms control and international security. In a speech at the UN General Assembly last October she repeated the warning that US patience at the Pakistani veto – in the Conference on Disarmament – on the commencement of negotiations on a fissile material treaty was “not infinite.” She will be coming to Islamabad from Geneva after talks with other P5 countries on this issue and is expected to renew the threat. Pakistan should counter it by telling her that if Washington does not agree to give Pakistan the same access to peaceful nuclear technology as has been given to India, Pakistan not only has the will to maintain its opposition to the negotiation of a treaty banning fissile material but would also not ratify the CTBT.
The writer is a former member of the Pakistan Foreign Service. Email: asif
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