Mixed signals emerged during and after Hillary Clinton’s high powered visit to Pakistan last month. Going by the statements made while in Pakistan, objective scrutiny would tend to suggest that the positives outweighed the negatives. The furore raised by Admiral Mullen’s caustic remarks, linking Pakistani intelligence agencies to the attack on the US embassy, subsided following her admission that her government did not possess any evidence to back Mullen’s charge. The acknowledgement that every intelligence agency maintained contacts with unsavoury characters was a refreshing departure from the self-righteous admonitions that had been directed at us for some time now.
Two of her declarations were particularly noteworthy. Her invitation to Pakistan to encourage the Taliban to enter negotiations in “good faith” was suggestive of Washington’s grudging reconciliation with the ground realities in that country. Public promotion of Pakistan, a country till recently held responsible for inciting extremist violence against US forces in Afghanistan, as a facilitator for negotiations with the Taliban represented a welcome move in the direction of pragmatism.
On the much maligned Haqqanis, a significant change could also be detected. The strident demands for their elimination were replaced by a more moderate and needless to say, rational approach. After admitting to a Pakistani arranged meeting between the US and Haqqani representatives Clinton agreed that, for dealing with this group, options other than a military clampdown were available. She urged Pakistan to use its contacts with the Haqqanis to “try to get them into the peace process, but if that fails, to prevent them from committing more violence.” By any reckoning this was a perfectly reasonable demand.
The two strands, seen together, signalled an acknowledgement, one hoped, of the futility of continuous war as the most effective or appropriate modality for securing Afghanistan’s future. The alternate route of a negotiated settlement it appeared had finally found favour.
On her return to Washington, Clinton essentially stuck to this script even though the tone was harsher. In an interview with Bloomberg News, the Secretary of State warned Pakistan of dire consequences if it failed to “contain” terrorists operating from its soil. She, however, clarified that the administration was not asking Pakistan to occupy its border regions as “different ways of fighting besides overt military action” were available. Significantly, past insistence on the use of force against the Haqqanis did not feature in the interview.
The emerging clarity in US thinking with regards to the Haqqanis was seriously blurred during Clinton’s testimony before the Congress where she again called for unequivocal action by Pakistan to close down safe havens for militants. In the same breadth she observed that the United States looked to Pakistan “to encourage the Taliban and other insurgents to participate in an Afghan peace process in good faith.”
It is here that the confusion arises due to the contradictory nature of the demands on Pakistan. On the one hand we are being urged to encourage the Taliban to join the peace process and on the other to clamp down on them. After two decades of involvement in Afghanistan, first in the eighties and subsequently following September 11, it would have been expected of the Americans to have acquired some appreciation of the Afghan character. At least the British could have explained to their senior partner that this was not the way to go about the business of peace making in that country.
In the first place, it is questionable that Pakistan wields such influence over the Afghan Taliban as to be able to order them to the negotiating table. Whatever little leverage we may have would be instantly dissolved were we to take military action against any one of their groups. Prospects of an equitable power sharing formula would be a more logical and effective incentive to draw the Taliban in the direction of serious and meaningful negotiations. This would also make Pakistan’s intercession with the Taliban more credible. Threats of military action, worse still actual hostilities, at this late stage of foreign military involvement in Afghanistan will have the opposite effect.
The recent killing of Mullah Nazir’s brother in a drone strike closely followed by the suicide attack against a NATO military convoy in Kabul points to the futility of continued insistence on the military option. Within days of the killing of the Taliban leader and several of his colleagues, thirteen US troops lost their lives in what has been described as the deadliest ground attack in the ten year long conflict. One can understand the aversion of a great superpower to concede military stalemate with a band of tribal warriors; yet this reality needs to sink in if efforts at peace are to have a chance.
It is hoped that the forthcoming regional conference in Istanbul will take a fresh look at the Afghan situation and base its conclusions on the unpleasant but hard realities that prevail in that country despite the sustained effort, spread over a decade, of the most powerful and lethal military machine in the world.
The writer is Pakistan’s former Ambassador to the United Nations and European Union. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org