Pak-US relations and Afghan quagmire | Pakistan Today

Pak-US relations and Afghan quagmire

Vagaries of Consciousness

  • Anybody learning the right lessons here?

After a hiatus of several months the Americans are back taking a swipe at Pakistan in the aftermath of a tragic ‘insider’ attack on senior American and Afghan security officials in Kandahar. The Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was his usual self in sending a blunt message: “We expect Pakistan to curb terrorists fighting in Afghanistan and it will be held accountable if it fails to do so”.

He went on to say: “We don’t believe we can get to the place that everyone wants, right. Everyone wants reconciliation in Afghanistan, and to achieve that, you can’t have a safe harbour for Taliban, for Haqqani, and for others inside of Pakistan”. He also made it clear that “the Pakistani government knows that that’s our view and this administration has already made significant efforts to hold them accountable, and we hope that they’ll achieve the goal that we’ve set for them”. It was perhaps a reference to suspension of reimbursement of expenses Pakistan’s security forces provide in support of the US operations on the alleged ground of presence of Afghan militants in the country, which is vehemently denied by Islamabad.

The message, laced in a language suitable for a master-servant relation, was given in a news briefing in response to a question from an Afghan journalist. Earlier, soon after the Kandahar incident, the Afghan president, Mr Ashraf Ghani, had claimed that the planning for the attack was done in Pakistan. He did not disclose the basis of this assertion. Clearly, Secretary of State’s response could well be aimed at giving credence to Afghan government’s view. But it could also be a result of the sheer audacity and nerve-racking nature of the attack in Kandahar.

For the first time, the commander of the NATO forces, a US army general, was the target of the attack who narrowly survived unhurt. Three senior Afghan officials, including the police chief Abdul Raziq, who had earned considerable notoriety in stamping out Taliban from wherever he was posted, were not so lucky and two American guards were also wounded. The job was done by Taliban sleepers embedded in the provincial governor’s (who was also killed) body guards.

This was the most lethal insider attack, which have become the leading cause of deaths of coalition troops in Afghanistan since they were disengaged from active combat. A total of 102 insider attacks have taken place. This has perverted the symbiotic relationship between the US and the Afghan forces. How can a mission aimed at training and mentoring the Afghan forces be successful when the very people trained and mentored open fire on their trainers and mentors, and that too, in most of the cases, from behind, the most symbolic form of treachery? The distrust and demoralisation sowed amongst coalition servicemen by such attacks saps more energies than during active combat. A notable politician being the Mayor of a town in the State of Utah had gone for a second round of his national guard duty in Afghanistan where he was killed by a gunshot suspected from an insider.

Once the anger had sub-sided, the US dispatched its Deputy Assistant Secretary Alice Wells, an accomplished diplomat with long experience of South Asia

In the backdrop of Kandahar tragedy, Danny Sjursen, a retired US army officer, who served on several combat and reconnaissance missions in both Afghanistan and Iraq asked a fundamental question: What, then, can we say about this near miss ambush, and how does it reflect on the war effort – America’s longest – in Afghanistan writ large? He gives the reply: “the US mission is failing by every measurable metric – notably in politics and security. The attack, and the identity of those killed, demonstrate the murky nature of the entire mission in this landlocked, inhospitable corner of the globe. Two salient facts standout – 1) the Taliban contest a record number of districts, and, obviously can strike where and when they choose – killing a provincial governor, police chief, and nearly hitting the top US general in the country; 2) some of the Afghan dead were themselves shady figures – demonstrating the gray zone of the US operations in the Central Asia”. [Emphasis added]

It is a curious response from the senior State Department officials to attempt to turn their ire and bile on Pakistan. May be this is because Pakistan is a plausible scapegoat, given its sturdiness to withstand countless challenges it has been subjected to since the Russian invasion and the endless war-like situation that has prevailed in Afghanistan since then.

As if what the secretary of state said was not enough, the ante was upped by a report that a day earlier at a seminar held at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a Washington-based think tank, the Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for Pakistan Henry Ensher referred to alleged “safe havens” for Taliban, attacking the US forces, and Pakistan’s “nuclear weapons and materials” as the two main concerns of the Trump administration. He claimed that the US has and will continue to exert “pressure of all sorts” to persuade Pakistan to change its policies. In his keynote address, he said that “We can no longer be silent about the fact that some externally focused terrorist groups enjoy safe haven in Pakistan’s territory”.

Mr Ensher, who assumed the charge of his new position only in October, is a novice in Pak-US relations. Much of his career was spent in Iraq and Afghanistan mostly acting as civilian adjunct to military missions: “… bringing stability to Afghanistan was the “primary and major area of policy divergence” with Pakistan, and reminded Islamabad that “no partnership can survive such disconnect”. He was not impressed by recent gains Pakistan made in clearing its territory from militants, as he complained that this was not helpful to them since Haqqani network was not eliminated. He further said “Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our peace effort in Afghanistan and much to lose by providing safe haven to terrorists…” In a mix of excitement of the new job and ignorance of the dynamics and history of Paki-US relations, he was quite brash when he said: “Pakistan would be held accountable if terrorists operating from its territory were not curbed”. He further warned that “Pakistan’s battlefield nuclear weapons pose a greater risk from theft and misuse and increase the risk that a conventional conflict between India and Pakistan could escalate to use of nuclear weapons”.

These outbursts could well serve some domestic purpose, but they are utterly unhelpful in cementing a stronger partnership with Pakistan. The tone and tenor of discourse is downright undiplomatic, if not insulting. Pakistan is not a servant and the US is not a master; yet enough compost has been heaped by Trump administration on a sovereign country. Top Pakistani leadership both civil and military has repeatedly said that Pakistan seeks no assistance from the US. We do want a friendly relation based on trust, respect and mutual interest. Furthermore, we have the ability to determine our own interests, without others lecturing us on this subject. We have red lines that we would not allow these to be crossed come what may.

Once the anger had sub-sided, the US dispatched its Deputy Assistant Secretary Alice Wells, an accomplished diplomat with long experience of South Asia. She saw in Pakistan what the department must have suspected: pure indignation and resentment. She was not given high level meetings by key leaders of civilian and military establishments. The message she brought was disclosed by the Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi (ironically, that too as part of his briefing on Chinese visit): the US is broadening the engagement with Pakistan; trade and market access talks would resume; Mr Ensher would come to Pakistan and revive a long stalled energy cooperation dialogue between the two countries, and many more moves to normalise the relations.

The lesson is clear: US has to respect Pakistan; despite the US supporting India at the expense of its friendship with Pakistan, we continue to remain engaged and desire to deepen our ties. Necessary forums should be evolved to iron-out differences rather than announcing them through the public messaging system.



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