To recapitulate, the strengthening of India as a countervailing power to China in the South East Asia; pressuring Pakistan to restrain her missile development project or develop minimum nuclear deterrence; reneging from their pledge to defray half of the cost of the F-16s by the Obama Administration greatly strained bilateral relations between the two allies. Pakistan and China were sincerely working along with the USA and the Afghan regime to find a negotiated settlement of the Afghanistan problem within the Quadrilateral Group. The USA failed to accept the Taliban’s minimum demand of lifting sanctions on their foreign travel. Before the second huddle between the Afghan regime and their adversaries could be arranged, the USA killed Mulla Mansur, the Amir of the Taliban, in a drone attack thinking that he was a hardliner and the main hurdle in the talks. To their chagrin, his successor, Mulla Habibullah, proved to be far greater a hardliner than him and altogether ended the process of the talks.
The Afghan National Army and the NATO forces have failed to stop the regrouping of the Taliban for attacks deep in the country. The Ashraf Ghani regime is hamstrung by internal dissensions. Afghanistan has become the hotbed for terrorist groups. Many terrorist organizations have established their outfits in Afghanistan and carry out terrorist attacks in that country and Pakistan as well. The Ghani regime continues to blame that the attacks deep in his country by the Taliban are being organized from the tribal regions of Pakistan. Unfortunately, the USA State Department tends to believe in the erroneous evaluation of the situation by the Kabul regime.
The top USA General John Nicholson and the USA Parliamentarians visited the tribal regions of Pakistan to see for themselves the success of the Zarb-e-Azb operation there. Americans also know that Pakistan is not capable of sealing the long border. The border has been porous and the Pashtuns living across the border have been visiting each other freely since centuries. The question of peace in Afghanistan is linked inseparably with Pakistan and not with any other country of the region. The Trump Administration should not be ignorant of this reality.
Pakistan also has to shun a lot of baggage from the past years. The Taliban elements either from the Haqqani group or the Quetta Shura if present on our soil should be ejected from their safe hideouts as part of our effort to set our house in order. We should also make no compromise on the presence of the TTP elements on the Afghan soil. They have been tools in the hands of our adversaries to carry out acts of sabotage and terrorism against our country and people from across the border. Maybe, the Afghan leaders have been protecting them as a bargaining ploy to force Pakistan to clear her land of the Afghan Taliban. They may have recourse to sanity once we break all our links with their enemies.
As part of our counterterrorism campaign, we should also act against the religious elements and extremists declared by UNO as terrorists. We have to do it today or tomorrow. Today, we shall do it out of our own volition. Tomorrow, we shall be forced to do this. We have had enough of extremism. It has been eating into the vitals of our society destroying inter faith tolerance and strangulating healthy theological debate in the country and feeding the propaganda guns of our adversaries to depict Pakistan as a state sponsoring terrorism. Half the way, the world has come to believe in their sinister propaganda.
The American Generals on the ground including the NATO Commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicolson, and the CENTCOM Chief General Vogel pleaded for a surge in the American troops in Afghanistan and highlighted the importance of Pakistan’s cooperation as they knew that any fresh war against the Taliban would invariably require the help and support or at least the cooperation of Pakistan. The Afghan rulers do not trust Pakistan. For any fresh deal with Pakistan, the Afghan leaders seek guarantees from a third party to ensure that Pakistan would comply with such understanding. This is absurd and does not fit in any understanding between two sovereign neighbours. One thing is sure that the thinking of the American Generals on the ground has greatly impacted the Trump Administration’s policy on Pakistan and Afghanistan. There has always been a strong lobby in the Capitol Hill talking against Pakistan especially under the influence of the conservative think tanks fuelled by the relentless propaganda of India.
President Trump took his time to come up with his policy statement on Pakistan. Contrary to our hopes, his policy did not have a balanced and objective approach to the two nuclear states of South Asia. From the start of his power, the signs emerging in bits and pieces from Washington were not encouraging. The atmosphere hovering over the Capitol Hill was of an antagonism towards Pakistan. However, the State Secretary Rex Tillerson and Assistant Secretary for political-military affairs, Tina Kaidanow maintained that “Pakistan is an ally on counterterrorism issues and would be essential in bringing the Taliban to the table for peace talks”. Added to this official brief by the State Department was the sane counsel of the retired US Generals. General Douglas Lute urged Washington to balance the administration’s demands on Pakistan in dealing with the Afghan Taliban with its other interests in Pakistan. “We actually have several interests in Pakistan that surpass our interest in dealing with the Afghan Taliban”, he categorically emphasized.
But the voices that favour downgrading of relations with Pakistan remained unimpressed, particularly the Congress members like Ted Poe, Dana Rohrabacher, both Republicans, Bob Corker, Chairperson of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and many others harped on their demands to cancel Pakistan’s status as non-NATO ally, label her state sponsor of terrorism and terminate all military and economic assistance to her. With this in view, we could have proactively engaged opinion makers in the American society from the friends on the Capital Hill to Senators and Congressmen, White House, Pentagon and to the conservative think tanks. Americans were in a quandary as the ISIS, having been battered in Iraq and Syria, was trying to gain some space in Afghanistan. The Al-Qaeda, TTP, IS, Jamaat-al-Ahrar were then more aligned to ISIS than the Afghan Taliban. We should have driven our point home that the upsurge in NATO forces would not help the USA defeat the militant groups and stabilize the Afghan regime.
We faced some pressure from the new USA Administration on the nuclear question and missile testing. What we have been clamoring to achieve is the minimum nuclear deterrence against the security threat posed by our 800- pound gorilla neighbour. The nuclear arms race was initiated by India. So far, the USA has been increasingly putting pressure on Pakistan to end this nuclear arms race. Our differences with Washington on the nuclear and security issues would be easy to reconcile if the USA leadership puts some pressure on our belligerent and militarized neighbour. The main cause of friction, rather enmity, between the two larger countries of this region for the last seven decades has been the festering Jammu and Kashmir dispute. To defuse the tension between Pakistan and India and return Afghanistan to peace and normalcy, the Jammu and Kashmir issue would have to be made part of the overall scheme of peace in the South and South West Asia. This is where our diplomatic efforts should have been consistent, persuasive and constant.
However, we have to watch the flux situation and pursue a new way forward. The shake up in the USA National Security Council with the appointments of General McMaster to John Bolton and to what not has been the highlight of President Trump’s muddled view of Afghanistan conundrum. General McMaster looked at Pakistan from the Afghanistan prism as the patron of the Haqqani Group, the bête-noire of the USA and Afghan leaders. Lisa Curtis, as we recall, had co-written a foreign policy paper with Mr. Hussain Haqqani calling on the Trump administration to take tougher stand against Pakistan to compel it for crackdown on terrorists.
The USA policy on Afghanistan has suffered from many contradictions and continues to experience these contradictions. The USA leaders are not clear as to what they want to do in Afghanistan. Thus, their policy on Pakistan would also oscillate from one end to the other. It wants peace in Afghanistan through negotiations with the Taliban. At the same time, it refused to join the huddle of 12 regional states in Moscow in April 2017 which included Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran, Afghanistan and India and all the Central Asian States. Similarly, the USA policy on CPEC is also antagonist like that of India and cancelled the signing of an agreement with Taliban after 9 months’ arduous talks.
Thus, Pakistan could face challenges on counterterrorism in Afghanistan; her growing relations with China and Russia in the context of CPEC; Afghanistan; the Indian opposition to the CPEC and the growing tension between the two neighbours due to the new tragic situation in the Indian occupied Jammu and Kashmir. What Pakistan needs to do is to try to prevent the “tilt to India” in the Capitol Hill and clear the USA misunderstandings on the presence of the Afghan Taliban groups on her soil. All these issues are interlocking and need careful handling. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s presence in USA at the eve of UN General Assembly Session made a positive impact on Pakistan-UA relations. The need is to have constant interaction with the US leadership.