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January 19, 2020

Alice Wells’ visit to Pakistan — a nod for multi alignment with US?

National

January 19, 2020

With acute tension between Iran and the US abating, and India increasingly seen isolated as “intolerant state”, the United States’ Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Alice Wells is expected to ramp up support for Delhi and seek Pakistan’s multilevel cooperation on Middle East and Afghanistan during her visit to the region.

Pakistan’s Foreign Office spokesperson Aisha Farooqui confirmed that Ms Wells will be arriving in Islamabad on January 19 and is expected for talks on all issues including Afghanistan and the Middle East tension, and other bilateral issues.

Besides, Pakistan, Ms Wells is also visiting India and Sri Lanka in the wake of certain developments. Before Islamabad, she is scheduled to stop over in Delhi to assure US support and assuage Indian anxieties heightened after the increasing rivalry between the US and Iran and the growing commonality of interests between the US and Pakistan.

Recently, Delhi has been rattled: the first shock for India—a ‘Major Defence Partner’ of the US and which has strategic relations with Iran and ambitions to operate Tehran’s Chabahar Port—came in when Washington handed over a slap in the face by not informing about its decision of General Suleimani’s impending assassination.

Then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s decision to call Pakistan’s Army Chief of Staff General Bajwa within hours of the strike only served to rub salt in the Indian wound, followed by a chat of the US Defence Secretary Patrick Michael Shanahan with the Army Chief. Perturbed over some protesters in India who chanted anti-American and pro-Iran slogans subsequent to the killing of Iranian General, Delhi found isolated in the impending Middle Eastern crisis.

Interestingly, President Donald Trump, who always boasts of PM Modi’s closed friendship did not bother to call the Indian prime minister. Last but not the least, the State Department’s announcement resuming military training for Pakistan’s armed forces was the last thing policy makers in Delhi wanted to hear.

Ms Wells visit carries huge importance given the emerging geo-political scenario: Pakistan is keen to help de-escalate the tension in the Middle East particularly calm things between Washington and Tehran, on the one hand, and also use its leverage with GCC countries, on the other, to preempt further inflaming the region as a result of the US-Iran tension and Iran-GCC rivalry.

Islamabad has sought to engage Tehran, Washington and Riyadh directly and also use its leverage with China and to a degree with Russia to reduce prospect of full fledged hostilities in the region.

Also clouded by Iran-US tension, Afghanistan theatre is a significant geo-political challenge for both Pakistan and the US: Islamabad and Washington has jointly made efforts to reach out to the Taliban and agree on some convergence both between the US and the Taliban and also ultimately between the Taliban and other Afghan stakeholders in order for the US troops to draw down and resolve the conflict through political dialogue.

“Whereas, the Taliban are poised to announce at least some reduction in violence so the US can announce inking a deal with the Taliban”, revealed Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi during his visit to the US. The second phase of “Lahore Dialogue” involving many Afghan politicians just concluded, as Track 2 interaction. Ms Wells will also likely be interested to know the latest appraisal of Pakistan on the possible contours of intra-Afghan dialogue. The Afghan talks have been relegated in the background after the assassination of Iranian General Soleimani. Now Washington and Islamabad already have removed friction on Afghanistan.

Since Pakistan is a stakeholder in the stability of Gulf, West and South Asia, it would also be sharing its concerns with the US Interlocutor for the region—Alice Wells. Pakistan’s strategic position was made clear by ISPR and subsequent interaction between the US Secretary of State, Secretary of Defence and Pakistani Army Chief Gen Bajwa. The buzz word Pakistani policy makers are using is of “neutrality”—not taking sides between Iran and the US and staying away in case of any potential escalation into major conflict.

She also recently expressed her deep concern about the situation in IOK which Pakistani side will be discussing with her.

Overall an upward trajectory of positive shift in the US policy towards Pakistan has been discerned. Last week, she announced the resumption of a training programme for Pakistan’s military officials — a step which will definitely strengthen military to military cooperation on shared priorities & advance US national security goals. Ms Wells also announced that 15 high-level business delegations will be visiting Pakistan during 2020, and are expected to invest generously. Islamabad has welcomed these announcements.

But there are divergences between the US and Pakistan which (i.e, Pakistan) may flag during Ms Wells visit: Islamabad is closely looking at India-US strategic partnership and also may take exception to proposed visit of President Trump to India in February while not making a trip to Islamabad. Also Pakistan will be underscoring its anxiety over any potential harm to its interests coming from increased defence ties between the US and Delhi and between Delhi and Israel.

Islamabad will have no issue as long as these relations do not negatively affect its security and standing in the region. The US’ criticism on Human Rights violations in India, illegal occupation of Kashmir and the introduction of discriminatory citizenship law is still meek. Indian involvement in international terrorism particularly using Afghan soil to destabilise Balochistan is also ignored by Washington. For Islamabad, any undue support might damage the US image, besides, further isolating Delhi in this part of the world.

Ms Wells has a busy itinerary in Islamabad as she is scheduled to visit foreign office, meet Prime Minister Imran Khan and also a call on with the Army Chief Gen Bajwa. The US Embassy is also trying to arrange some exclusive interactions with thinking and talking heads in Islamabad.

The writer is a geopolitical analyst, a politician from Balochistan, and ex-adviser to the Balochistan government on media and strategic communication. He remained associated with BBC World Service. He is also Chairman of Centre for Geo-Politics & Balochistan.