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The Pakistan Factor | Abdul Basit

US-Pakistan relations, which had relatively stabilised in the last three years are once again in hot water. There is a sense of déjà vu in Islamabad, as the US Congress has blocked the move of the Obama administration to sell eight F-16 fighter planes to Pakistan at subsidised rates, under the Foreign Military Financing (FMF) programme.

This development has taken place in the backdrop of increasing US pressure on Pakistan along three lines. First, the renewed demands to release Dr Shakil Afridi, the main accused who helped the CIA run a fake Hepatitis vaccination campaign in Abbottabad to obtain DNA samples from Bin Laden’s hideout, to confirm his presence there. Afridi is currently serving a 33-year imprisonment. Second, the demands to reduce its tactical nuclear programme at the recently concluded Nuclear Security Summit in Washington. And third, the demand to take military action against the dreaded Haqqani Network, which has been involved in a string of high-profile attacks in and around Kabul.

This has revived the troubled memories of the late 1980s when the US slapped sanctions on Pakistan under the Pressler Amendment, after the defeat of Russian forces in Afghanistan, for developing a covert nuclear programme. Coincidently, the US cancelled the sale of F-16s to Pakistan, despite cash payments by the latter.

This time, the pretext is Pakistan’s failure to convince the Afghan Taliban to participate in the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG)-backed peace process and stop the Taliban from launching the annual spring offensive, and its inaction against the Haqqani Network.

The false impression emanating from this narrative is that Pakistan alone is responsible for the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan and that it is the sole obligation of Pakistan’s political and military leadership to fix the Afghan conundrum. This does not bode well – both for the future of Pakistan-US relations and for the QCG-led fledgling peace process in Afghanistan.

The tone in Kabul and Washington has toughened against Pakistan, after the Taliban’s refusal to participate in peace negotiations and their launch of the spring offensive. Unfortunately, once again, the US is trying to scapegoat Pakistan for its policy failures in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the embattled and dysfunctional Afghan National Unity Government is externalising its internal failures to cope with the plummeting security situation.

The road to peace in Afghanistan is long and hard, with several unseen twists and turns. Nowhere in the world are conflicts resolved in such a short time especially, when the stakeholders try to shift the blame to each other, rather than owning up to their own failures and flawed policies. It is expedient for the US and the Afghan government to single out Pakistan. More importantly, this acrimony will not help in finding a workable solution to the Afghan conflict.

The current dynamics of the Afghan conflict are not as simple as a linear equation between Kabul and the Afghan Taliban. The Kabul-Taliban dimension of the Afghan conflict is one of the several internal aspects of a multifaceted and complex problem. The conflict has multiple overlapping and conflicting regional and international layers as well. Without factoring in the issues of a regional proxy war between Indin and Pakistan in Afghanistan and the intense international competition to maintain influence in Afghanistan by the US-led Western block against the Russian and Chinese alternative model under the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a durable solution in Afghanistan is difficult.

The US’ unfair demands from Pakistan to act unilaterally against the Haqqani Network and the sanctuaries of the Pakistani Taliban in Afghanistan, without addressing Pakistan’s legitimate concerns of India’s negative role in Afghanistan do not add up. Ironically, in January of this year, the chief of US and Nato troops in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General John Mick Nicholson, categorically stated that targeting the Haqqani Network was no longer the focus of US counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan.

Three months later, the US demanded the exact opposite from Pakistan, which exposes the inconsistency and confusion of US policies in Afghanistan. The Afghan and American duplicity of keeping backchannel contacts open with different Taliban groups, despite failing to engage them in formal peace talks, while criticising Pakistan’s contacts with the Taliban’s Qatar office is also mindboggling. Not taking into account the failures of military efforts to stabilise Afghanistan in the last 15 years and pushing Pakistan to use force against the Haqqanis is foolhardy and self-defeating.

The QCG-initiated peace process was not meant to be a one-time take it or leave it opportunity, to end with the Taliban’s refusal to talk to Kabul and their initiation of the Spring Offensive. The undue haste and desperation shown by Kabul and Washington to reach some kind of understanding with the Taliban may deliver short-term relief, but it will undermine the long-term settlement prospects.

Any quick-fix solution at this stage will provide the US a convenient opening to exit from Afghanistan. This will hurt Pakistan later, if the situation deteriorates. A case in point is the premature US exit from Iraq in 2011. Three years later, the US had to return to Iraq to fight a bigger enemy in the form of Isis. A repeat of an Iraq-like situation in Afghanistan will be catastrophic.

Since 9/11, the US has viewed and approached its relations with Pakistan from the narrow lens of its security and strategic interest in Afghanistan, without giving due consideration to the latter’s legitimate security concerns and regional interests. The US policy of de-hyphenating Pakistan in its dealing with India and hyphenating Pakistan with Afghanistan, under its so-called AfPak policy, has not changed the structural realities in the region.

Given Pakistan’s location, size and military prowess the US would do well to reassess its policies towards the country, for long-term peace and stability in the region.

The writer is an associate research fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research of theS Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.

Email: isabasit@ntu.edu.sg


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