US & Pakistan: Frenemies?

TITLE OF THE PIECE IS BY THE BLOG. An edited version of this article under a different title ran in a local newspaper.

By: Zafar Hilaly

Over the past few weeks an unusual quiet had descended on the normally animated and frazzled relations between Washington and Islamabad. Missing was the hard talk, the snubs, jibes and cancelled visits and so too gripes of payments withheld (CSF) or pledged (Kerry Lugar) all of which was a welcome change from the earlier goings on.

And, today, the Foreign Minister conveyed more good news. ‘All is well’, she said, triumphantly. We have got ‘over the difficult patch’. ‘Intelligence and military contacts’ have resumed and relations are on an ‘upward trajectory’, so much so, that the two capitals are close to evolving ‘common positions,’ on Afghanistan.

Whoopee.

Of course, all that’s so much make believe. Serious differences remain on how the war should be pursued, to what end, for how long and their respective roles. Besides, the damage inflicted on the relationship over the past two years is, frankly, irreparable.

The pall of bitterness caused by Salala, Abbotabad, Raymand Davis and the attack on the US Embassy in Kabul which the Americans laid at our doors, as much as the Haqqanis, will take years to lift.

Good friends have become distant acquaintances. Where once there was fellow feeling there is now suspicion and mistrust. The relationship stands transformed and not for the better. Essentially the two have cut each other adrift.

That said, Ms Khar has reason to be pleased. It is in the interests of both countries, though more so Pakistan’s, to set aside differences for the moment and to cooperate. The Afghan war is winding down and what happens next in Afghanistan is of greater concern to us than the US. It’s important, therefore, we have a seat at the Afghan peace table and a say in the region’s future and that can’t be done by taking on the US, or sulking but by extending our cooperation and being helpful in the search for an agreed peace.

That’s not to say that the US is strong enough to do what it pleases. It needs our cooperation to get out of the Afghan mess. Otherwise we would have been toast long ago. It is only after strenuous US efforts at coercive diplomacy failed, in other words, when Washington discovered that ramped up drone attacks, threats of an aid cut-off, snarling, growling and protruding fangs did not work that it tried a less combative approach.

But that is not to say it will not try again. Only a few days before Ms Khar’s rosy view of US-Pak relations Panetta’s speech at the Centre for a New American Security in Washington restated American unhappiness with Pakistan.

When asked about the chances of America prevailing in Afghanistan Panetta replied, ‘success in Afghanistan is dependent on having a Pakistan that is willing to confront terrorism on their side of their border and prevent safe havens.’

In short, the Afghan Taliban, who are America’s enemies are terrorists and Pakistan, by not taking them on, is at fault. As it happens, Pakistanis do not consider the Afghan Taliban terrorists nor do they consider enemies of America, or friends of America, for that matter, as their enemies or friends. Pakistanis view the Haqqanis as Afghan nationalists fighting to be rid of American occupation. And consider it folly to take them on merely to please America; anyway, Pakistan has its hands full coping with threats posed by the Pakistani Taliban and India.

And if the Afghan Taliban, of which the Haqqanis are a leading element, are terrorists, why does America want to engage with them; and why do American envoys praise Pakistan for releasing a number of detained Afghan Taliban if they are ‘terrorists.’

As for Panetta’s belief that America would by now have ‘completed its job’ of eliminating the Taliban but for the safe havens in Pakistan, that’s absurd. There are no safe havens in the west, north and east of Afghanistan and yet Taliban activity has picked up. Nor near Kabul, which is nearly 200 kilometers from the Pakistan border, and where Taliban attacks are most frequent and intense.

Far better then, that Panetta heed his own advice and ‘focus on developing a force in Afghanistan that’s able to provide security and can establish operational capability to confront threats on the Afghan side of the border.’ And, ‘have a regime in Kabul that can govern itself, that can move away from the corruption, that can, in fact, have the capability to provide the kind of governance that you need in order to truly secure that country and govern that country for the future,’ although that is not even remotely on the cards.

Panetta’s speech did not mention what would happen if American forces were to remain in Afghanistan after 2014, as they intend to which is going to prove yet another cause for intense friction in the region.

American analysts (Kimberly and Frederick Kagan) in a closely argued article entitled, ‘Why US troops must stay in Afghanistan,’ fired the first salvo in what, I suspect, will be a fierce new debate within America and internationally between countries, like India, who wish America to retain a sizable US presence in Afghanistan and others, like Pakistan and Iran, who would be happier if the US departed lock, stock and barrel. Ironically, this position is now strongly endorsed by the New York Times (29/11/12)

Contending that for America to leave without retaining the option of conducting counter terror operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan would be irresponsible, the Kagans conclude: “We must either stabilize Afghanistan at this minimum level (68,000 troops) or abandon the fight against al Qaeda and its allies in South Asia. Any alternative light foot print strategy is a dangerous mirage’.

In fact, the contrary is true. An American presence will not only foreclose the possibility of any agreement with the Afghan Taliban but also guarantee the continuation of an unwinnable war; enhance the prospects of a revival of Taliban- al Qaeda ties, as the Taliban traditionally welcome all comers wanting to help in a jihad and further destabilize Pakistan. The fact is that America can no more stabilize Afghanistan by staying on than a fox can a chicken coop by sitting near the door.

The better option for America, although it is one on which the window is fast closing, is to take advantage of the current Pakistani regime’s eagerness to preserve the American alliance, however frayed and battered because no future government, even if by some miracle it is another Zardari led coalition, will be as well disposed to Washington’s viewpoint. No Pakistan government can withstand the hemorrhaging of its popularity by supporting a large US presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014 and thereby prolong a war now considered the fount of all Pakistan’s woes.

For Panetta to blame Pakistan for America’s failure in Afghanistan is unconvincing. Pakistan made some mistakes but America and Obama, whose war it became, made many more the chief one being to bank on Petraeus, a phony general who led them deeper into a phony war much as many of us had predicted at the time.

In refashioning American policy towards Pakistan, American policy makers, says Michael Klugerman of the Woodrow Wilson Centre, should bear in mind a number of key lessons among which are that limited opportunities for cooperation with official Pakistan should be seized and coercive diplomacy shunned. To my mind one more lesson that also needs learning is that no quarrel ought ever to be converted into a policy.

Using these recommendations as a yardstick to measure the success or otherwise of current US policy we discover the policy falls woefully short on all counts. The future of the relationship, therefore, sadly, seems more threatening than inviting notwithstanding the glowing picture Ms Khar has presented of a period in time when our relations will prosper, our friends are true and our happiness is assured.

The Article was shared by the author directly . The writer has been a former Ambassador of Pakistan.

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