The ebb and flow of US-Pakistan relations have historically been based on expediency and thus are primarily transient in nature. They are once again coming under serious strain due to the unfolding events in Afghanistan, which highlight the great divergence that exists regarding how to deal with the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network. The release of Shakil Afridi, who has been jailed for spying for the Americans and clandestinely assisting US efforts in locating Osama bin Laden, also remains a sore point. Pakistan considers him a traitor whereas he is lauded by the Americans for being a critical source in locating the whereabouts of a global and most wanted terrorist. The US also views the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and Pakistan’s growing economic, defence and strategic convergence with China suspiciously. The strong Indian lobby in the US has been able to successfully prejudice members of both houses of Congress against Pakistan, which is creating hurdles to the sale of F-16s and other military hardware. Pakistan is also under pressure from the US to restrict the development of intermediate-range missiles, stop or reduce the production of fissile material as well as there being concerns over other nuclear and military related issues.
But when it relates to India, the US generally supports or at best looks the other way at its burgeoning nuclear and conventional weapons development. India’s nuclear-armed and nuclear-propelled submarines have brought about a transformational change in the strategic landscape of the Indian Ocean. The plan to deploy a functional ballistic missile defence system with both low and high altitude interceptor missiles when it materialises would be another significant breakthrough with serious implications for Pakistan and the region. In addition, the development of the high-energy laser system, codenamed Kali, is a potential candidate for future induction although it is still years away from reaching the production phase. India takes advantage of the potential threat from China to justify these significant nuclear and conventional build-ups and remain close to the US, but in essence these weapons pose a greater threat to Pakistan. They could downgrade Pakistan’s first and second strike capabilities, bringing us even closer to China.
The differences with the US on our Afghan policy are even more serious. The Pakistan military maintains that we remain engaged and tolerate the Haqqanis and the Taliban leadership because they are a reality and a potent asymmetric force existing in our neighbourhood with which we have to deal with. Furthermore, we are fully engaged in fighting the TTP and other insurgents, and cannot create more enemies. We also maintain that we have only limited influence over the Afghan Taliban and cannot push them any further. With US satellites hovering over our territory, we cannot convince the world that the insurgent leaders are in Afghanistan if they happen to remain in hideouts in Fata or Balochistan or even in Karachi. By making claims that are contrary to facts, we are compromising our credibility and end up being accused of doublespeak. The drone attack in which Mullah Mansoor was killed poses fresh problems not only for Pakistan-Afghan, but also for Pakistan-US relations. The recent revelation that Mansoor may have been living in Karachi has deeply embarrassed our position and is likely to provide our detractors reason to malign us further. The main grievance of the Afghans is that the Taliban leadership draws strength and sustenance from being based in a protected environment in Pakistan. Consequently, it cannot be trusted. As a quid pro quo, they are playing the same game with us by giving sanctuary to TTP leaders. The US, Iran and India are more supportive and sympathetic towards the Afghan position. Regrettably, the more the Afghan government gets alienated from Pakistan, the greater it leans towards India, preventing us further from taking any decisive action against the Taliban. Thus Afghan-Pakistan relations are caught in a vicious cycle and have been unable to extricate from it. In this scenario, the beneficiary has been the Taliban, which had expanded their reach in several provinces of Afghanistan, including Kunduz in the north and Herat in the west.
Mullah Mansoor’s death will surely be a major setback for the Taliban. It could lead to a power struggle and it may be sometime before a new leadership emerges. If the Taliban fragment, the Afghan government could exploit this to their advantage. Experience, however, shows that the Taliban have great resilience and can bounce back with renewed zeal. The drone attacks also demonstrates another aspect of the conflict, that the Taliban will never be allowed to militarily overrun Afghanistan as long as US and Nato support is available. Some analysts who remain critical of US-Afghan policy are of the view that Mansoor’s assassination has sabotaged prospects for peace. What they fail to recognise is that Mansoor and his coterie were not inclined towards a peaceful settlement at least in the near future.
For Pakistan, the current scenario throws up a fresh challenge on dealing with the emerging Taliban leadership and balancing this with Afghan and American expectations. Unsurprisingly, our subdued initial reaction both at the official and public levels could be indicative that the goals of the Afghan Taliban are not necessarily those of Pakistan itself and that we are gradually trying to distance from them. Recent border management issues also reinforce Pakistan’s policy. Nothing would be better for both Afghanistan and Pakistan than to resolve their differences peacefully through direct negotiations in a sprit of give and take. This should be the rational approach for winning mutual confidence and reducing outside interference. In any case, with regional and global pressures, this evolution has to come sooner or later. The question here is how those forces in Pakistan that saw the Afghan Taliban as an asset and as a preferred means to protect our interest in Afghanistan would perceive this evolution in the future.
With these compelling foreign policy challenges, the prime minister will be well advised to give priority to appointing a full-time foreign minister. He should activate the committee on national security and foreign policy, benefit from consulting the cabinet and take parliament into confidence on major foreign policy issues.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 25th, 2016.