With foreign fighting forces in Afghanistan returning to their own countries by the end of the year, Pakistan-US relations have undoubtedly entered a new phase. This was quite evident from the recent visit of US special representative for Afghanistan Daniel Feldman to Islamabad.
Feldman, after meeting COAS General Raheel Sharif and foreign office officials, while briefing a group of journalists at the US embassy in Islamabad, spelt out the new parameters for ties with Islamabad. According to him Kerry-Lugar legislation, under which Washington provided about $5 billion civilian assistance to Pakistan in five years, will not be renewed. He made it clear that the new mantra would be trade instead of aid.
The US envoy was rather sceptical about ongoing operation Zarb-e-Azb. He termed the military operation against terrorists in North Waziristan as a welcome development, but at the same time insisted that, “more had to be done”.
Ostensibly, with only 12,500 foreign troops to be left behind, mainly for non-combatant roles like training and advising, Afghanistan and Pakistan will be largely on their own to sort out the mess.
In a sense history might repeat itself from February 1989, when Soviet combatant forces quit Afghanistan. The US, after using Pakistani military and the ISI to actively support the Afghan Mujahideen, left the region and never looked back.
A number of analysts blame Washington’s post-Soviet detachment from Afghanistan for the mess that later became the precursor for creation of the twin menace of al Qaeda and the Taliban. In the post 9/11 scenario the Bush administration threatened Islamabad with a clear message: either you are with them or us – and Pakistan was left with little choice.
Now are we back to square one? Perhaps not. But the kind of noises Feldman made the other day in Islamabad, unfortunately, pointed towards the same scenario being re-enacted.
The ‘do more’ mantra is nothing new for Pakistan. Nonetheless, in the post Narendra Modi’s sojourn to Washington, it assumes a new meaning. The joint communiqué issued at the conclusion of the Indo-US summit specifically named terrorist groups ostensibly operating from Pakistani territory.
Much of this could be American posturing as well. After the heavy price it paid for abandoning Pakistan and Afghanistan, a repetition of the same mistake will again be at its own peril
Another aspect of Feldman’s remarks is that the terrorists being flushed out from the badlands have moved into southern Afghanistan. Once the US withdrawal is complete the Taliban of different hue and colour will play havoc there. The poorly trained Afghan army will fall like ninepins facing the onslaught of the Taliban just like the Iraqi army’s capitulation at the hands of Islamic Stat (IS) troops.
Much of this could be American posturing as well. After the heavy price it paid for abandoning Pakistan and Afghanistan, a repetition of the same mistake will again be at its own peril.
The bilateral visit of the COAS on the invitation of the US Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, scheduled for mid-November, is taking place at a very crucial juncture for Pakistan. This will be a good opportunity not only to test the waters but to engage Washington as well.
As a result of ISAF forces quitting Afghanistan, certain sources of funding for Islamabad are surely going to dry out. The Coalition Support Fund (CSF) – apart from the backlog – will not is available to the government. The CSF in any case was mostly used for budgetary support rather than directly by the military.
Similarly, the US will no longer need the NATO supply route to Afghanistan through Pakistan. This was a leverage that Islamabad would use as a bargaining chip in negotiating with Washington. Naturally the transporters plying the NATO supply route will also be adversely affected.
General Sharif will be the first military chief visiting the Pentagon since his predecessor General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani accompanied foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi as part of the delegation for the strategic dialogue with their American counterparts in February 2010.
At that time termed by the US media as ‘Pakistan’s most powerful man’, there was little doubt that the leading player in the Pakistani delegation was the army chief and not the foreign minister. Qureshi, now PTI’s leading light, was perfectly happy at the time with getting an opportunity to play second fiddle to Kayani.
Obviously, the hardliner Modi government in Delhi raising the ante on the LOC (line of control) and working boundary will be on the top of the agenda of the COAS while engaging his hosts in Washington
The military chief, while briefly meeting the US President Barak Obama, handed him a fourteen page ‘non-paper’ about the Pakistani military’s strategic concept about the region. General Kayani later shared the paper with a select group from Pakistani media specially invited to the GHQ.
General Kayani used to famously say to the Americans: you have the watches and they (Taliban) have the time. Reluctant to launch a putsch against militants holed up on our western borders, Kayani would retort, “We cannot wish away our neighbours. Once you leave we still have to deal with them”.
The intellectual general would often brief the Pakistani media that it was not possible to launch a military operation against the Taliban in North Waziristan, as they would spread their activities all over the country. With the eastern border not secure, the army will be spread too thin to deal with the blowback, he contended
When General Sharif visits Washington his hosts will find a different man, one who has no pretensions of being an intellectual. He is a soldier plain and simple.
So far as the operation against the terrorist in the badlands, Zarb-e-Azb was launched some five months ago. Contrary to the perception being created in the US and Indian media, the military has targeted terrorists of all hues and colours without discrimination.
Surprisingly, those who were predicting a blowback have been proved wrong. On the contrary, there has been a marked decline in terrorist activities across most of the country since the launch of the operation. The TTP is fragmented and in disarray.
Despite this, the US is sceptical about Pakistani designs. It still thinks that the military is harbouring India and Afghan specific groups. In this context statements and movements of Jamaat-ud-Dawa’s Hafiz Saeed do not further Islamabad’s cause.
Obviously, the hardliner Modi government in Delhi raising the ante on the LOC (line of control) and working boundary will be on the top of the agenda of the COAS while engaging his hosts in Washington. Pakistan is facing the conundrum of securing its western borders from terrorism and its eastern from a jingoistic neighbour.
For the time being, at least, the military and the civilian government, if not entirely being on the same page, are at least talking to each other. Sharif’s paranoia that the military is out to get him has also somewhat subsided.
Nonetheless, if little or only half-hearted attempts are made to build on the military gains against terrorism, things can fast slip back into chaos. More than the military it is the civilian Sharif’s job to take charge instead of fighting ghost wars.