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October 13, 2017

One ‘last’ time: Part - I


October 13, 2017

James Mattis, US’ pragmatic Secretary Defence, while deposing before a Senate Armed Services Committee, made the famous remark that the US would ‘one more time’ make an effort at working with Pakistan to change its waywardness towards the Haqqanis and others who bother the US and its allies in Afghanistan and the region, and try and align Pakistan towards a more cooperative role in countering terror.

This is a good statement to make anyway, because it encourages a cooperative approach towards what should be a common problem for both the US and Pakistan. What most people miss is that it was a specially positive statement made by the secretary considering he was speaking in the backdrop of Trump’s disruptive policy enunciation, practically fracturing the bilateral relations of the two countries. Trump was as direct as only he can be while conducting foreign relations when he threatened Pakistan with consequences if it did not choose the right way: which essentially meant lending a cooperative hand to the US policy in the region. In the longer term that policy may be an enigma but in the short term it addresses specifics, like fighting the Haqqanis.

In this engagement with the committee, Pakistan’s most prized project – CPEC – too came under serious suspicion by the two gentlemen when the senators sought Pentagon’s larger appreciation of what was afoot in the region. Both aspects – the ‘one-more-time’ quip and casting CPEC in a negative light – irked many here. It was as if the US spoke only India’s language. The bit about CPEC passing through disputed territory made it even more contentious with loud proclamations that Washington had fallen hook, line and sinker for the Indian narrative. Quite naturally there was vehement defiance in Pakistan to these positions. And no, it did not endear the Americans to public opinion in Pakistan.

Mostly, when such interactions take place in the American political system these do not amount to direct statements of policy; rather they are only loud thinking by specialists and those responsible within the government who share their views with  Congressmen. These hearings can be closed or open to public depending how sensitive the content is, but mostly they remain in the open domain  which is why reporters can pick off pieces and share with people; that is how we got Mattis’ statement. The purpose essentially is for Congressmen to learn more – and the US administration is not the only one that briefs senators; they invite scholars and experts and develop a wholesome understanding of an issue to advise the government formally with their inputs.

This is also a common tool to test the public’s and specialists’ reaction, as indeed sometime of the intended nation. Otherwise, no one shares sensitive policy impacting American security and foreign policy interests in such forums. It is important, thus, to know the full perspective. Not that these reflections can be nonchalantly dismissed, or that these may not translate into real policy, but they are essentially works in progress thrown out to test the waters; especially before a major initiative is due on such policy. (Senior US officials are expected to visit Pakistan soon, in quick succession, to establish the revised parameters of engagement with Pakistan). What Trump propounded was a maximalist position with necessary inducements. What these guys are doing is to examine the ways to achieve those policy ends through other means – essentially strategising the policy.

See the span of it. The senators discuss Afghanistan and the secretary invokes Pakistan with the broadest brush bringing in all that is ugly from the American perspective which has habitually been pinned on Pakistan as a popular recourse. In that the Haqqanis and CPEC and Kashmir get counted, each through a speculative and negative reflection. The last-chance theory is then added to carve some space for diplomacy and inducements, negative and positive, to play their role. Quickly China is mentioned along with OBOR, and its strategic meaning on the global landscape is discussed. This is a world power pondering over its challenges in the region with a very broad brush and examining its levers of influence in shaping the environment to counter Chinese dominance.

This is a superpower’s palette; we only get counted as bit players, a means to shaping an end. If the American end game is to be deduced from such loud thinking, Afghanistan and China stand out as immediate concerns in their immediate strategic conception. For the moment though these at least explain some nodes of engagement as parleys take shape during the upcoming meetings.

There are more, unsaid, like the strengthening of Daesh in Afghanistan’s vast ungoverned regions. Karzai directly blamed the US for their institution, sustenance and burgeoning as an emerging threat equal to if not more than Al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban. There are reports of unmarked helicopters delivering weapons and ammunition to these groups working under the umbrella of Daesh. The Russians have said it for long; others are now only getting to confirm it. Reports of Daesh in Syria finding easy access to US weapons is only recent news.

It may be a convenient strategy for the US to use Daesh to fight Assad in Syria and the Taliban in Afghanistan but it renders this entire region to a combustible tinderbox waiting for a rightly timed spark. Afghanistan may have been a perpetual collateral in this great game but Iran and Pakistan will surely be devoured by an imminent inferno. This translates into indirect strategy to other objectives; nuclear deals or pathways hardly a factor from here-on. 

The furore is already unleashed in Pakistan, not on account of any deeper meaning to US strategy, but in reaction to the depositions. The prime minister has stated openly that it is time to look beyond the US. He may be right in the notional sense but when working diplomacy it may not be realistic. Pakistan needs to find a way out on Afghanistan; it is in its interest to see CPEC through, and then consolidate the gains made against terrorism.

Pakistan’s major planks of policy, enunciated over time, are realistic in its own strategic calculus. To achieve them it will need to work with Afghanistan – if it can find a favourable response considering that Afghanistan remains a nominal government and an occupied state – and not fight Afghan (read America’s) war on Pakistani soil. Both are sterling facets of a policy which defines Pakistan’s vital interests in Afghanistan.

CPEC is Pakistan’s assurance to a future – perhaps – and will need to be saved for the moment. Finally, it must also save itself from an impending inferno via agents such as Daesh. And seek IFI’s safety in the imminent economic meltdown which may be upon us sooner than we think. The World Bank report is timed well to assist the US mission and bring some sanity to Pakistan’s belligerence. It comes in a package, as they say.

These are the challenges of the forthcoming engagement. What must be the responses?

(To be continued)

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