Monday August 15, 2022

The on-off partnership

September 10, 2017

The much-awaited review of America’s war strategy in Afghanistan has brought Pakistan’s ties with the superpower to their most challenging phase since the major setbacks encountered in 2011.

As one tries to find answers to this conundrum, it may be worthwhile to revisit some crucial episodes that the relationship has traversed since 9/11 – as depicted in former foreign minister Abdul Sattar’s book ‘Pakistan’s Foreign Policy, 1947-2016’, the fourth edition of which has just been published by the Oxford University Press.

Abdul Sattar, a seasoned Pakistani diplomat who held the foreign affairs portfolio from 1999 to 2002, has devoted a chapter of the book to Pak-US relations. The chapter, titled ‘On-Off Partnership with the USA, 2001-2016’, states that in response to US “requests” for facilities immediately after 9/11, Pakistan allowed the use of two airbases: Shahbaz in Sindh and Shamsi in Balochistan. Over the following weeks, Pakistani security forces arrested a thousand Al-Qaeda and Taliban intruders and transferred 300 of them to CIA custody.

Pakistan also deployed troops along the Afghan border to prevent foreign militants from establishing hideouts in Pakistan territory. This proved to be a demanding task. The strength of Pakistani forces in the tribal areas had to be increased to 200,000 at mounting financial costs.

There are diverse explanations of why Pakistan-US cooperation concerning Afghanistan has undergone so many tests and tribulations. Sattar singles out the “US decision to expand war aims from counter-terrorism to counter-insurgencies, which in effect meant restructuring power to reward northern warlords who sided with Washington in the war against the Taliban, hailing mostly from the Pakhtun ethnicity. Islamabad, on the other hand, believed peace and stability in the country required equitable shares for all ethnic communities in order to prevent inter-ethnic strife.”

The book goes on to narrate how Pakistan’s fears were vindicated when non-Pakhtuns grabbed disproportionate shares in the cabinet, civil bureaucracy, police and the military and Pakhtuns got a raw deal. These policies inevitably led to more Pakhtuns joining the insurgency as a jihad against foreign aggressors as well as Pakistan for collaboration with the ‘enemy’.

Tens of thousands banded together to unleash terrorist attacks on the Pakistani state and its people. The book further mentions that Pakistan had to transfer nearly a quarter of a million troops from the eastern border to counterterrorism that took a mounting toll in deaths and destruction after 2006. While the Pakistan Army was preoccupied with efforts to contain the terrorist rebels, Washington pressed it to ‘do more’ against the Afghan insurgents.

More significantly, Sattar records that as priorities clashed, US officials began accusing Islamabad of playing a double game. The then defence secretary Robert Gates said Pakistan was “really no ally at all”.

The ‘on-off’ chapter recounts the acts of omission and commission on both sides that took Pak-US relations through their most troubled phase in 2011. It would take many months before the ties were eventually repaired. Sattar is sceptical of benefiting from the tendency to rap the US, notably through harsh resolutions and other forms of rhetoric.

The author draws attention to America’s role as Pakistan’s largest export market, which is a top source of investment and financial assistance and a major source of defence equipment. On its part, Washington needs Islamabad’s cooperation for countering terrorism and promoting peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan.

The book states that with the large drawdown of forces in Afghanistan under former president Obama, the US need for Pakistan’s cooperation had been reduced. Washington has since been largely focused on the aim of securing the regime in Kabul, perceiving Pakistan “as the main obstacle as it allowed Afghan insurgents to use Pakistan territory as base for cross-border raids”.

Sattar does not lose sight of the other aggravating factors in the gradually deteriorating Pak-US partnership. He narrates the developments that took place in Obama’s two terms, particularly the treatment of China as the challenger and India as a partner in regional and global geo-politics. “Of direct concern to Pakistan’s diplomacy was the emergent strategic partnership between the United States and India.”

Other than trade and defence deals, the Obama administration permitted the sale of nuclear reactors to India and actively supported India’s abortive bid to join the NSG, ignoring Islamabad’s concerns for strategic stability. While the US criticised Pakistan’s deployment of tactical nuclear weapons, it did not say a word against the Indian Cold Start doctrine, which necessitated the Pakistani deployments.

The author points out that despite growing US penchant for India, the Obama administration rescued $1.7 billion for aid to Pakistan in 2017. It had underlined that Pakistan remained “critical to the US counter-terrorism effort, nuclear non-proliferation, regional stability, the peace process in Afghanistan, and regional economic integration and development”.  

Since the publication of Sattar’s book, Pakistan has rejected Donald Trump’s new Afghanistan strategy and America’s reliance on India as its privileged partner in South Asia. Reactions from Pakistan’s government, parliament, the media and the political parties have collectively sent the message that Washington’s one-sided approach is unacceptable. They also show that Pakistan has done more than its share in combating terrorism and achieved more than what the combined might of the US and its allies have achieved in their actions since 9/11.

Sattar is conscious of the fact that the description of the Pak-US partnership as contained in his book has been overtaken by these developments. He is of the view that an important partnership with the US is over and it is now a matter of salvaging the relationship. “Make or break,” he cautions. He believes that the military high command has to sit down with the civilian leadership, including those responsible for finance, to consider Pakistan’s options. Alongside this, efforts should be stepped up to promote national reconciliation in Afghanistan.