The long and short of it
Pak-US bilateral relations are in a fix again. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Pakistan earlier this week with the clear intent of forcing Islamabad into taking certain measures against a number of insurgent groups that Washing believes continue to find shelter inside Pakistan’s borders.
Islamabad, for its part, maintains that there are no sanctuaries of militant groups in Pakistan. Washington, however, continues to brush aside Pakistan’s clarifications and has made clear that unless Pakistan takes action against the Afghan Taliban’s support bases inside Pakistan, peace and stability in Afghanistan will remain a distant reality.
But the important question is: Can both states cooperate when their strategic interests in the region continue to remain on the collision course?
Apparently, Tillerson has brought the same message that US President Donald J. Trump left for Pakistan when he announced his Afghanistan policy in August: “Pakistan has much to gain by partnering with our efforts in Afghanistan. It has much to lose by continuing to harbour criminals and terrorists. It’s time for Pakistan to demonstrate its commitment to civilisation, order, and peace.” While in Afghanistan, Tillerson in an interview said that “we have made some very specific requests from Pakistan in order for them to take action and undermine support that Taliban and other terrorist organisations receive in Pakistan.” Addressing Washington’s new approach toward Pakistan, Tillerson clarified that “this is a conditions-based approach. It will be based upon whether they [Pakistan] take action that we feel necessary to create more reconciliation opportunities in Afghanistan.”
Moreover, while expressing concerns regarding the militancy challenge that Pakistan faces from a number of home grown terrorist organisations, Tillerson said that “Pakistan needs to take a clear-eyed view of the situation that they are confronted with in terms of a number of terrorist organisations that find safe havens inside Pakistan.”
A week ago, Islamabad was praised by US and a number of other western countries for rescuing a US-Canadian family that was held hostage by the Haqqani Network for five years. Trump not only thanked Pakistan for rescuing the family safely, but also noted, “The Pakistani government’s cooperation is a sign that it is honoring America’s wished for it to do more to provide security in the region.”
Clearly, Pakistan’s top military and civilian leadership has rejected the way Washington has pushed for the ‘do more’ approach which for Islamabad, appears to be an effort aimed at giving lip service to New Dehli and Kabul’s demands. Moreover, the way Tillerson was welcomed in Islamabad shows that there is no patience left on Pakistan’s side as far as Washington’s demands are concerned. With Beijing’s support, Pakistan is ready to stand up to the growing regional isolation that clearly undermines Pakistan’s interests. “For Islamabad, Afghanistan, India, and the United States appear to be uniting forces to isolate it in the region. It would have been a much wiser approach if some of Islamabad’s grievances were also addressed during the visit. The one major occasion when Tillerson called Pakistan an ‘incredibly important’ partner was in the context of the challenges that Pakistan faces from militants and regarding what it can do to diffuse some of these challenges that the region faces, particularly in Afghanistan,” I noted elsewhere.
Reportedly, Pakistan’s top brass presented its own views regarding Afghanistan’s security situation and informed Tillerson about Pakistan’s own strategic interests in the region which continue to remain unaddressed. It surprising that while secretary Tillerson talked about India’s demands on terrorism and Afghanistan’s concerns regarding Pakistan questionable security policies, America’s top diplomat didn’t find Islamabad’s security concerns important enough to be highlighted at any point. Clearly, for Islamabad it’s more like a regional nexus being put together to isolate Pakistan rather than a policy to address Afghanistan’s security problem.
Washington needs to realise that it doesn’t have any leverage to force Pakistan into making any changes into its security policy unless the latter’s security concerns are address in Afghanistan and beyond. The recent trip of Washington’s top diplomat shows that US is more interested in appeasing its strategic partners, India and Afghanistan, in what appears a new approach to counter Pakistan and China’s role in the region. Washington’s new policy will only create political and security frictions in the region rather than addressing core security issues that the region faces in the form of growing militancy in Afghanistan and beyond.