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July 12, 2017

At a crossroads


July 12, 2017

Pakistan’s tenuous relations with the US took a turn for the worse last year when Congress refused the package to largely fund the purchase of eight F-16 aircraft for the Pakistan Air Force. Pakistan abandoned the purchase and preferred to look for other options.

This punitive measure by the US was in addition to withholding hundreds of millions in the Coalition Support Fund due to be reimbursed to compensate for the expenses incurred by Pakistan in the fight against terror.

The motive behind these moves was to pressurise Pakistan to stop being selective in its fight against militant networks. Realising the grim situation, three former foreign secretaries and an ex-adviser for national securities jointly wrote a front-page opinion piece to warn the establishment that continuing the soft policy on militants who are hitting the neighbours had run its course. Pakistan needed to heed the calls to rein in the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network and jihadi groups targeting India to avoid a further slide in its relations with India, Afghanistan as well as the US.

Not much has happened after that urgent call by the veterans or repeated demands by Washington, Kabul and Delhi for concrete action to be taken to demonstrate a change in policy on militants that were not hitting Pakistan. It should, however, be pointed out that those harping on about how Pakistan should do more were quiet about all the terror attacks on Pakistan sponsored by RAW and NDS with the possible collusion of other agencies.

The US was then gripped by election fever that brought the Republicans back to power. Pakistan witnessed a period of reprieve as the Trump administration undertook a review of its Af-Pak policies. It appeared that the level of US and allied troops in Afghanistan would be increased in the coming months. Trump had assigned the responsibility of dealing with Afghanistan to his generals.

The state department’s role was further reduced. This could be seen through the abolition of the post of the special US representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. A regional approach will be put in place instead whereby a greater place will be assigned to India in the formulation of US policies towards the region.

Then came the orchestrated leak which suggested that a policy review could lead to a hardening of Washington’s attitude towards Pakistan for not cracking down on the Taliban and the Haqqani Network who are wreaking havoc in Afghanistan by escalating the level of violence to unprecedented heights. This was accompanied by a heightened level of invectives against Pakistan from Kabul despite meetings between Ghani and Nawaz on the margins of regional conferences.

There are several factors that need to be considered by our civil-military leadership – both urgently and dispassionately. The Indian lobby in the US is working overtime to trigger greater punitive measures against Pakistan through the US Congress. Their job has been greatly facilitated by Modi’s first meeting with Trump that sought a tougher US stance on Pakistan.

In contrast, Pakistan has practically no lobby in Congress and the government has maintained its policy of not engaging a lobbying firm in Washington. This approach overlooks an important feature of US congressional life and administrative decision-making. While most would agree that a lobbyist may not be able to sway things in Pakistan’s favour, he will at least be able to sow the seeds of doubt in the minds of policymakers about pushing Pakistan against the wall. Our case is, therefore, going unheard.

Lobbyists do not substitute diplomatic missions but certainly supplement their efforts in pursuing policy objectives. The prime minister has also been averse to appointing a foreign minister. He has had his way for four years by keeping the foreign affairs portfolio with him. Let him now concede to the almost unanimous advice that a foreign minister can only help project Pakistan’s stance on the international stage.    

Washington has been stepping up pressure on Islamabad about the need to crack down on the Taliban-Haqqani operators on Pakistani soil. First, a US drone attack killed a Haqqani commander in the settled area of Hangu. Eventually, a high-profile bipartisan delegation of the Senate Armoured Services Committee led by Senator John McCain conducted a series of meetings in Rawalpindi and Islamabad. The senators were given extensive briefings and taken for a short tour of South Waziristan.

McCain, probably the leading Pakistan supporter in the US Senate, conveyed the message of ‘do more’ but also listened to Pakistan’s limitations in taking on the Afghan groups while Pakistani terrorists – who are sheltered – in Afghanistan continue to mount major attacks in Pakistan. That did not help in removing misgivings on the American side, which came to surface during McCain’s announcement in Kabul. He said that if Pakistan did not change its policy on Afghan groups then the US may have to change its attitude towards this nation.

This is the starkest warning from the US and led the policymakers here to organise a huddle on Friday and consider Pakistan’s options in the face of a partisan approach by Washington that holds Pakistan responsible for the stalemate in Afghanistan. Earlier, the prime minister had paid a rare visit to the Foreign Office to fine-tune the civilian brief on the challenges thrown by the US asking Pakistan to do more or else.

The public response emerged after the National Security Council meeting and recounted Pakistan’s role as a frontline state that had made tremendous sacrifices in the global counterterrorism efforts. The statement that followed the NSC’s meeting also states that Pakistan continues to work for peace and progress in Afghanistan through an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process and strive for the return of normalcy in the country. “This, however, requires simultaneous efforts by the Afghan government for restoring effective control on its territory”.

It is reasonable to assume that behind the scene, the civilian leadership and the military high command have agreed on certain measures to accommodate the US views so as to prevent the kind of attitudinal change articulated by Senator McCain.


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