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June 17, 2016

A new standoff


June 17, 2016

The history of Pak-US relations brought together a superpower and a small state, with a third country always in the equation. The relationship has oscillated between seasonal (or political) highs and lows, from generous aid packages to multiple sanctions.

Tiffs, and major and minor crises have kept the two governments and their diplomats busy. In the wake of 9/11 and the ensuing war against terrorism, this rather symbiotic relationship took a new turn, in efforts to fight and eliminate terrorism in the region. This involved the Musharraf and Zardari regimes; and now the Nawaz Sharif government is shuffling the cards.

After the removal of the Taliban regime from Kabul, fighting terrorism in Afghanistan was the job of the US. However, over time, fighting Taliban remnants became Pakistan’s responsibility. The rise of the TTP became a joint concern, as it was linked to both the US presence in Afghanistan, and Pakistan trying to squeeze them inside its territory.

Thus with the Taliban resurgence, the TTP factor, and the US drawdown 2014-16, the situation became murky. One result was the blame game between Kabul and Islamabad on who was supporting whom against whom. In this charade, despite its goodwill efforts, Washington could play little role, as evidenced by the abortive ‘Taliban talks’.

And as Pakistan got serious in fighting terrorism in its territory, its armed forces launched Operation Zarb-e -Azb which was praised by the US administration. But this did not cater to a political settlement of a bigger issue – the mainstreaming of the Taliban in Afghan politics; and for Pakistan, elimination of the Taliban from the local scene. The situation is compounded due to the Taliban affiliates that also need to be tackled. Thus, another point of convergence for the two allies – but different strategies to achieve their goals.

As the two countries worked on their own agendas, the US got an opportunity to eliminate Taliban leader Mullah Mansour in a drone strike in Balochistan, a big catch for US intel, but one that caused serious reverberations in Pakistan. Even the interior minister was unable to explain the incident in his press conference, and so another low period in Pak-US relations ensued.

While the killing of Mullah Mansour was no game changer, it came at an awkward time, as Pak-Afghan relations were touching a low ebb, the US was trying to keep its drawdown plans on track and both PAK-US and Pak-India relations were strained. To this was added Indian PM Modi’s visit to Washington, and India’s quest for NSG membership with US support. This raised alarm bells in Pakistan, adding another irritant to its current relations with both the US and India.

Since the 1960s, all American administrations have had to handle India-Pakistani acrimony and crises with due diligence. Cold war politics made it somewhat easier. But the exigencies of 21st century geo-economics make it more difficult for Washington, especially when Modi seems to hug Washington, and get billions of dollars worth of investment in return. Afghanistan/Taliban issues further complicate the picture for Pak-US relations. The Obama administration made a good move by recently sending a high-powered delegation to engage Pakistani officials; the plausible agenda: NSG, F-16s, and Afghanistan.

The messages from both sides were clear – but not new. Both sides are aware of the other’s position, whether NSG membership, or US-India, or Pak-Afghan relations. When the US supports India in its NSG bid, it knows what it is doing. Pakistan’s foreign secretary has cautioned Washington against upsetting the regional balance, and for supporting its NSG bid. Pakistan knows the answers to both; the US has made it clear that the two are to be dealt with differently. In an election year, Pakistan should not expect more.

On the positive side, Pakistan could rely on rhetoric. Two examples are: President Mamnoon Hussain’s address to parliament, saying that the US and Pakistan are trying to repair damage caused by ‘misgivings’; and the recently held ‘Security, Strategy, Stability, and Non-Proliferation Dialogue’, in which a range of critical issues were discussed. But this has not really helped remove the perennial distrust. And it is this fog of amity and ambiguity that defines the current state of US-Pakistan relations.

At this time, the agenda and the challenges are daunting. In order to come out of the woods the two protagonists need to balance their interests with the other’s realistic expectations for a sustained partnership.

The writer teaches at the Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]


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