And Pakistan’s options
The diplomatic spat over the first drone attack of the year apparently on a refugee camp in Kurram agency epitomizes a sharp downturn in Pak-US relations. Ties between Washington and Islamabad — the so-called quasi allies — have been on the skids for some time now.
They hit an all-time low during the first year of the Trump administration. However, the US embassy in Islamabad in a statement accusing Pakistan of lying sets a new benchmark for terse relations between erstwhile allies.
Terming Pakistan’s claim that the US drone targeted a refugee camp rather than a terrorist camp as false, Washington has certainly raised the ante in its already frayed relations with Islamabad.
Both the foreign office and the ISPR (Inter Services Public Relations) insist that there are no terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan. However Islamabad’s repeated claims that the Haqqani network no longer exists in Pakistan is taken with a pinch of salt by the US.
If the ISPR is to be believed that the drone strike was over Hangu a settled district rather than over Kurram a tribal region, this is a major escalation. Perhaps only once before a US predator drone violated Pakistan’s airspace when it took out the Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour in Baluchistan in 2016.
Maybe Washington feels that the carrot and stick policy of the past has not worked with Islamabad
In a threatening tweet earlier this month president Trump had accused Pakistan of deceiving the United States and harbouring terrorists while accepting billions of dollars in foreign aid. He prophetically warned Islamabad that “this equation will no longer be tolerated.”
More than the drone strike taking the unusual step of publicly refuting Islamabad’s claim in extremely harsh language by the US should be worrisome for our policy makers. Washington is clearly signalling that fed up of Pakistan’s perceived non-cooperation it is now willing to raise the stakes.
Maybe Washington feels that the carrot and stick policy of the past has not worked with Islamabad. But US policy makers are also well aware that arm-twisting Pakistan has its limitations.
Whereas on the one hand Pakistan’s security assistance as well as the money owed by the US to Pakistan for services rendered under the CSF (Coalition Support Fund) has been withheld on the other Pakistan is also being kept engaged on the diplomatic level.
Only last week US acting assistant secretary of state Alice Wells was in Islamabad along with senior officials of the US National Security Agency (NSA). The American official using polite diplomatic parlance acknowledged Pakistan’s efforts in eradicating terrorism and also expressed, “the US desires to work with Pakistan in furthering the shared objective of stabilizing Afghanistan.”
Similarly the commander of the US CENTCOM (Central Command) general Joseph Votel recently met COAS (Chief of Army Staff) General Qamar Javed Bajwa at the GHQ assuring him that the recent turbulence in the two countries’ relationship was “a temporary phase”.
Notwithstanding diplomatic niceties in public, privately US officials and military leaders are imploring Islamabad to do more to weed out terrorists from its badlands. Pakistan’s claims that it is doing all that it can to flush out the Haqqani network and other terrorist groups simply does not cut much ice in Washington.
Last week two serious terrorist attacks took place in Afghanistan. The Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul was targeted in a spectacular attack killing at least twenty people, mostly foreigners.
It was pure incompetence on part of the Afghan authorities that a high profile and obvious target was again attacked. Save the Children office in Jalalabad was also subsequently attacked albeit with much less casualties. Predictably Pakistani based terrorists were blamed for the brazen attacks.
As the security situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating, Pakistani based terrorist groups are being increasingly blamed for it. The poorly trained Afghan army backed by NATO forces are simply too inadequate to cope with the growing Taliban putsch.
The Taliban already control vast swaths of territory in Afghanistan. The US fighting the longest war in its history is clueless on how to extricate itself apart from blaming Pakistan for its alleged backing of the Afghan Taliban.
Unfortunately terrorism has become the catchword both for Washington and New Delhi to browbeat Islamabad. Mere protestations to the contrary that Pakistan is itself a victim of terrorism and is doing all it can to eliminate terrorists somehow is met with scepticism by most of our neighbours as well.
After allowing jihadists of all hues and colours to use Pakistani territory as a springboard with tacit backing of our security agencies in the past, there seems to be no quick fix way of eliminating them in one go. General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani while visiting Washington a few years ago as the COAS told president Obama, “The Taliban have the time while you have the watches.”
It seems under president Trump, the US is fast running out of time. In this context Islamabad’s ability to bring the Taliban to the negotiation table has been severely undermined.
Why will the Taliban be willing to talk if they are winning on the ground? Even if they would talk it will be to negotiate handing them complete power rather than sharing power.
Obviously Islamabad needs some proactive diplomacy to disentangle itself from the Cul-de-sac that it has landed itself into, thanks to its flawed policies. Merely making fiery speeches castigating Washington and New Delhi will not do the job.
The poorly trained Afghan army backed by NATO forces are simply too inadequate to cope with the growing Taliban putsch
Islamabad actually needs to be seen to do more to convince the world that it has long abandoned the policy of using jihadists as an instrument of state policy. Only fiery rhetoric in this context will prove to be counterproductive.
If Islamabad has actually abandoned its traditionally flawed security paradigm the world should be made aware of it. Our present set of diplomats just trying to play to the gallery will not do.
With Pakistan’s economy now officially in the doldrums Islamabad does not have much leverage left with the west. The international rating agency Fitch has downgraded Pakistan’s outlook from stable to negative and has reaffirmed its B credit rating.
According to the Agency Islamabad has been unable to sustain the gains made under the three years IMF Extended Fund Facility after the program ended in September 2016. The Agency cited a precipitous fall in foreign exchange reserves coupled with widening of the fiscal deficit as a major indicator of the down turn.
By the reckoning of most independent economists Pakistan’s economy is back to square one. It will soon need another IMF bailout to sustain itself. Obviously with elections around the corner the government will pass the buck to the future caretaker government.
Washington, aware of its present predicament is surely going to ramp up more pressure on Islamabad. Between the devil and the deep blue sea — apart from good luck — Pakistan would need to engage in some highly skilled and inventive diplomacy hitherto lacking.
The US largesse will not come for free. It will certainly try to extract its pound of flesh.