The US cannot push Pakistan to ‘do more’ beyond a certain extent if it wants to maintain cordial relations
India and Afghanistan are the two major beneficiaries of the mounting trust deficit between Pakistan and the US. There was time when Pakistan enjoyed American nearness, the facility is available no more.
Pakistan might have been successful in securing a guarantee from the US for not extending any role to India in Afghanistan other than economic, but Pakistan is overlooking the fact that, in the post-2001 phase, it was India’s economic investment in Afghanistan’s reconstruction contributing to the India-Afghanistan and India-US bonhomie. Moreover, in his recent visit to New Delhi, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said that Afghanistan would not be part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) unless Pakistan provided trade access to India as well.
The Afghan President raucously demanded access of Afghanistan to India through Pakistan. He also gave an ultimatum that Afghanistan would not offer Pakistan access to Central Asia in addition to accusing Pakistan for providing sanctuaries, logistics, training and ideological basis to those attaching Kabul. On the other hand, he welcomed the new role of India in Afghanistan and a conditions-based approach of the US in the region. The Afghan president’s speech tells two things. First, Pakistan has failed to entice Kabul. Second, Afghanistan value its relations with India.
Pakistan’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Khawaja Asif thinks that the time has come to make the US fix the allegation of its failure in Afghanistan not solely on Pakistan as it is also the failure of their strategy there being made by its army generals. Asif does not know that it is still premature to say if the US was looking for scapegoats or not as the failure or success was not the point of discussion. As per the bilateral security agreement between Afghanistan and the US, the latter is allowed to operate and stay in Afghanistan till 2024. In fact, Afghanistan is a multilateral reality. Afghanistan has not developed its physical infrastructure to the point it can sustain itself independent of any external factor.
Pakistan seems to have been looking at Afghanistan through its archaic ethnic glasses and not any political criteria. From the perspective of Kabul, there are two immediate objectives. First, to develop infrastructure, the area where India is helping Afghanistan. Second, to suppress the Taliban insurgency dissuading it to taking over Kabul, the area where the US is helping Afghanistan. Within this context, Pakistan is considered to be frustrating both these objectives.
The present situation in Afghanistan has developed over the years. In his speech on February 26, 1999, former US President Bill Clinton hinted at the threat coming primarily from amorphous dangers, the term reified subsequently into non-state actors. Clinton remained instrumental in squashing the amorphous danger spawning in Afghanistan, but he avoided sending his troops to crush the menace. From 1996 to 2001, al-Qaeda thrived there under the Taliban regime and the US was in the know of its presence.
At that time, attacks on US outposts in various parts of the world were the reflection of al-Qaeda’s global reach with Afghanistan as its operational centre. The remoteness and sovereignty of Afghanistan must be the two reasons for the hesitation exercised by the US to intervene initially. George W. Bush who was the US President during the September 11, 2001 attacks got infuriated at the audacity of al-Qaeda operatives to attack US mainland. It was already known to US policy makers that there existed a strong ethno-political link between the Taliban reigning over Kabul and Pakistan.
What saved the Pakistan’s skin was that it had been an active ally of the US since the 1950s. The war on terror broke out but Pakistan was given a status of respect by the Bush administration. Former US President Barack Obama had to violate this leverage and announce his AfPak strategy (not policy) in March 2009 to dwarf the regional size of Pakistan and to equate it with Afghanistan.
The strategy included Pakistan’s tribal areas into Afghanistan for operational purposes. At the operational level, the US preferred not to drop his soldiers on the ground but the US did sniff out more al-Qaeda operatives and their Taliban supporters from the tribal area of Pakistan. As always has been the case, war helps create new technology. Missile-laden drones are the biggest achievement, which has helped the US forces not only to keep their body count low but also to eradicate al-Qaeda operatives.
During the Bush regime, the US remained focused on the al-Qaeda in the tribal area of Pakistan; however, during the Obama era, the focus turned towards the Taliban operatives (i.e. Afghan Talibans) active in the tribal area to disrupt the Kabul regime. With the elimination of al-Qaeda, the US might have felt itself safe and this was one of the reasons for departure of its forces from Afghanistan in 2014. However, the next challenge is how to sustain the Kabul regime against the onslaught from the Afghan Taliban. To meet this objective all help is extended to Kabul to withstand the terrorist threat posed by the Afghan Taliban.
The arrival of US President Donald Trump not only increased the level of disrespect for Pakistan but also the level of threat. The Trump regime has shown signs of abandoning Pakistan in case it does not help stabilize the Kabul regime by eliminating the Afghan Taliban surviving somehow under its umbrella.
This is the latest tug of war between Pakistan and the US. Presently, the US is reminding Pakistan of the billion dollars Pakistan received and consumed in the name of its national security. In his meeting with Rex Tillerson, the US Secretary of State, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi assured the US delegation that Pakistan was not sabotaging the war on terror nor had Pakistan abandoned it.
Pakistan provided a list to the US delegation containing names of the operatives and hideouts of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan in Afghanistan. The US might take it as a counter-offensive to its claims of paying Pakistan billions of dollars to augment Pakistan’s defence. The soothing aspect is that Pakistan has agreed to help Afghanistan experience a peaceful political settlement of its internal matters including a dialogue between certain groups of the Taliban and the Kabul regime.
In fact, it is the protraction of the conflict in Afghanistan taking its toll on Pak-US relations. Before Rex Tillerson’s visit, Pakistan showed its weakness by taking cover behind the presence of millions of Afghan refugees on its soil offering a sanctuary to those attacking Kabul.
Nevertheless, one thing is getting clear that the definition of safe heavens might be different for the US from what is being understood by Pakistan. The US is focusing on Afghan refugee camps as a supply depot of militants attacking Kabul, whereas Pakistan looks at Afghan refugees on humanitarian grounds and hence has shown its inability to take any action against them.
Apparently, it seems that the patience of the US is running out. Trump wants action either by Pakistan or by US forces including missile-laden drones. The base line is this: any attempt by the US to hit an Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan will spell disaster for Pak-US relations.