But out-of-the-box thinking still required
After the resumption of NATO supplies, Pakistan’s frayed relations with the US are on the mend. Modalities of transport of supplies to Afghanistan through Pakistan have already been inked. But intractable problems between the two allies still remain unresolved.
Islamabad, in the short span of a little over a year, had graduated from being a friend of Washington to being a frenemy and then to a virtual enemy. Better sense prevailed and concerted efforts were made by both sides to stem the rot.
It is often said that success has many fathers and failure is an orphan. Earlier, it was disclosed that the thaw was managed at a barbecue hosted by Ambassador Sherry Rehman at her Washington residence early June where National Security Advisor Thomas E Donilon dropped in. He informed the ambassador that Washington was ready for a deal.
Now it has been disclosed by The New York Times that the real breakthrough was not won through conventional diplomacy but through a non-conventional back channel between Thomas E Nides, a deputy to Hillary Clinton, and Finance Minister Hafeez Sheikh. In the end analysis, according to The Times, “The (US) president was swayed by money and geopolitics.”
Obviously, numerous meetings, exchanges of emails and a nod from the final arbiter General Kayani made it possible. Perhaps, it was the same logic of realpolitik and dire economic necessity which swayed policy makers in Islamabad and Rawalpindi to accept “sorry” from Hillary Clinton as equivalent to the unqualified apology that was earlier sought.
If pragmatism rather than misplaced jingoism prevails on both sides, the NATO deal could be precursor to a deal on wider issues outstanding between Washington and Islamabad.
The US and NATO forces have to exit Afghanistan by 2014. In order to leave a viable and workable structure requiring only a token NATO presence, Washington needs to engage the Taliban. And this is going to be difficult without Pakistan playing a role.
Islamabad’s current spat with Kabul over cross-border incursions does not give much room for hope. Pakistan accuses the Afghan army of actually abetting these attacks. It has also given a list of TTP militants engaged in such attacks using Afghan territory.
Kabul, on the other hand, claims that Islamabad is abetting such attacks from its soil. NATO’s military force in Afghanistan has also condemned “cross border shelling from Pakistan.” Of course, Islamabad has dismissed these charges.
Bringing back relations between Washington and Islamabad to a modicum of normality is not possible without reducing the yawning trust deficit; the same goes for relations between Islamabad and Kabul. The current spat has unfortunately taken place within a week of our newly inducted prime minister’s visit to Kabul to participate in the tripartite talks between Pakistan Afghanistan and the ISAF.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai remains an enigma. The very fact that his writ does not extend much beyond Kabul complicates matters. His western backers, for better or for worse, are stuck with him. How will he survive beyond 2014, when the rumps of his western backers are due to exit and his presidential term expires, is open to question?
Notwithstanding Islamabad’s problems with Kabul, intractable differences persist with Washington. Primarily, they stem from Pakistan’s strategic paradigm that does not quite gel with how Washington, Kabul and, for that matter, New Delhi view things in the region.
The US would like Pakistan to go after the Haqqani network and remnants of Al-Qaeda holed up in sanctuaries in N Waziristan. Islamabad, till now, has been reluctant to do so on the pretext that its army is already overstretched and cannot afford to get itself stuck in a quagmire.
The Pakistani military’s reluctance is, however, viewed by the US administration and the Congress as strategic rather than tactical. The prevalent view in Washington is that Islamabad perceives these elements as its strategic assets.
To some extent, it is true that the Pakistani military makes a fine distinction between the Pakistani and the Afghan Taliban. General Kayani has many a time said that Pakistan couldn’t wish away its neighbours and has to keep in mind that there should a friendly government in Kabul in the post-NATO Afghanistan.
Not-so-veiled threats are coming from Washington that it will declare the Haqqani network as a terrorist organisation and, by default, as its backer, Islamabad as well. However, this is easier said than done if Washington is really serious in engaging the Taliban at some stage before 2014.
Then, of course, is the question of drone attacks. Islamabad has a duplicitous policy on the issue. Obviously, there is a tacit approval of the drones at some level of our policy-making echelons. Pakistan has reportedly asked the CIA for precision guided missiles for its F16s to target the militants to replace the drones.
Washington is, however, unlikely to agree. It would neither like to divest itself of its favourite and most effective toy to eliminate the militants nor does it trust Islamabad enough to wash its dirty linen.
The ISI Chief Lt-Gen Zaheer ul Islam is due in Washington next week to engage his US counterparts on counter-terrorism consultations. This is a euphemism for resuming intelligence sharing and co-operation which ran into trouble after the Raymond Davis affair early last year and came to a halt after the assassination of Osama bin Laden by US Navy Seals later.
Meanwhile, Indian External Affairs Minister S M Krishna has patronisingly pronounced that there is a positive change in the mindset of the Pakistani people vis-à-vis relations with India. He has, however, meticulously avoided awarding the certificate of good behaviour to the Pakistani government or its ubiquitous establishment.
Mr Krishna is due in Islamabad in September. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has also accepted the invitation to visit Pakistan this year. However, he feels that there should be some concrete progress in relations in order for the visit to take place.
Despite talks going on at different levels since President Zardari’s dargah diplomacy earlier this year, there has been little progress on the issues plaguing relations between the two estranged neighbours. Even progress on issue like trade, economic cooperation and easing visa restrictions has been marginal.
Despite agreement on easing visa restrictions as a result of parleys between Indian and Pakistani interior secretaries in Islamabad, the matter was deferred on Pakistan’s insistence. New Delhi is also reluctant to go an extra mile unless the perpetrators of the Mumbai carnage are brought to book by Islamabad.
With Washington’s backing it on the demand, it wants Hafiz Saeed to be put behind bars. New Delhi is also reluctant to lower non-tariff barrier to ease mutually beneficial trade.
In order to improve relations, out-of-the-box thinking is required on both sides of the divide. But changes in the world environment should not elude our civilian and military leadership while formulating foreign policy.
The writer is Editor, Pakistan Today