Following parliamentary elections in Pakistan, the US Trump Administration reached out to the Pakistan Tehrik Insaf government to reset their fractured ties. In September and October 2018, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi held two meetings in Islamabad and Washington to renegotiate the terms of engagement. The US suspension of military aid, the resurgence of Taliban attacks in Afghanistan, and the efforts to revive the Afghan peace process have dominated the bilateral discussions. The US has demanded that Pakistan delink the Pakistan-based Taliban from their cadres in Afghanistan and force them to participate in peace talks. However, an absence of joint statements at the conclusion of both meetings indicates the continuing deadlock.
October 2018 marks the 17th year of US engagement in Afghanistan, making it one of the longest foreign wars in US history. Moreover, one year of President Trump’s Afghanistan-South Asia strategy has not brought about a significant change in the Afghan conflict. The US continues to view its relationship with Pakistan through the narrow prism of Afghanistan. The inclusion of the US State Department’s Special Adviser on Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford in Islamabad trip signifies that.
By narrowing its ties with Pakistan to Afghanistan, the US role as a neutral arbiter between India and Pakistan has been compromised. Not long ago, the US had a multipronged and diversified relationship with Pakistan. However, the US tendency of over-blaming Pakistan for its challenges and failures in Afghanistan has weakened its leverage. This has left the strategic space open in the region for other key players like China and Russia. Pakistan has leaned towards Moscow and Beijing to fulfill its security and economic requirements.
The US rhetoric of renegotiating the terms of engagement with Pakistan is a continuation of its old stick-and-carrot policy that incentivizes cooperation and penalizes defiance. Washington’s contradictory and confusing demands that Islamabad go after the Taliban safe havens and bring them on the negotiating table have only added to growing skepticism in Pakistan about the former’s sincerity to Afghan reconciliation.
A clumsy military action, when the Afghan Taliban have successfully expanded their territorial control, scored impressive military victories by exhibiting better operational capabilities, and diversified their regional ties beyond Pakistan, would be counter-productive and a recipe for more chaos. The mass resignations of Afghanistan’s security cabinet indicate how bad things are in that country.
All the variables that can make an insurgency successful are favoring the Afghan Taliban, of which cross-border sanctuaries are just one but not the only factor. Insurgencies succeed if: a) the government is dysfunctional and unpopular, b) external support (financial and logistical) is in good supply, c) sanctuaries are available for the insurgents to hide, train, and reorganize, d) a political narrative is in place that resonates with the masses, e) mastery of guerrilla warfare to fight a conventionally superior adversary, and, f) knowledge of the terrain which is used as a force multiplier in asymmetric battles.
The Afghan Taliban have a qualitative edge over Afghanistan’s National Unity Government (NUG) on all fronts. So, blaming Pakistan may be convenient for the US but it does not add up if a nuanced and objective assessment of the ground realities in Afghanistan is carried out. Any military misadventure to dismantle Taliban sanctuaries on the Pakistani side will only expand the Afghan war into Pakistani border. The stance of the new Pakistani government not to fight foreign wars, emphasizing the political termination of the conflict in Afghanistan through talks, and turning down US demands of “do more” with “no more” will keep the bilateral relations conflict-prone in the near future.
To gain Pakistan’s cooperation, the US needs a coherent strategy and a nuanced Afghan-South Asia policy which acknowledges Islamabad’s contributions, sacrifices and economic losses in the war on terror and which also appreciates and addresses its legitimate security concerns.
The change of government in Pakistan has opened up a new opportunity for the Trump Administration to take a fresh start. However, the decision to suspend the USD 300 million reimbursement under the Coalition Support Funds ahead of Mike Pompeo’s visit to Islamabad has added more chill to the already frosty relations. Before this, Financial Action Task Force-grey-listing and the cancellation of the International Military Education and Training programme for Pakistani military officers has further eroded US political capital and goodwill.
The US’ hard tactics have pushed Pakistan out of the US orbit of influence and closer towards China. During the meetings with Shah Mehmood Qureshi, the US also raised the issue of the growing Chinese footprint in Pakistan. In August, Mike Pompeo warned the International Monetary Fund (IMF) not to bail out Pakistan fearing the money would be used to pay off Chinese loans under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) — a key component of Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
A recent report in the Wall Street Journal indicates that Pakistan has emerged as a new flashpoint in the China-US trade war. The report points out that both the US and China are fighting for dominance and influence in Pakistan, trying to exploit the country’s precarious financial security situation. This means if Pakistan avails another IMF programme, the US will put certain terms on the bailout package demanding specific restrictions on borrowing from China, forcing Pakistan to scale back some of the CPEC projects. The IMF has demanded Pakistan to share details of CPEC projects which was rejected by the latter.
Given the above, Pakistan is between the rock and a hard place. On one hand, it needs an IMF bailout to overcome its balance of payment crisis and stabilize its shrinking foreign reserves. On the other hand, it desperately needs Chinese investment for ongoing infrastructure and energy projects to attract more foreign direct investment in the long-term to minimize its dependence on foreign borrowing. If the US frustrates China’s plans to expand its trade footprint under the BRI, it will continue to retain its hegemony over the world trade and key trade routes. On the contrary, if China succeeds it will undermine US dominance as the global trade leader.
In its 2017 National Security Strategy, the US outlined Chinese investment in the connectivity project under the BRI as being detrimental to its leadership in the world and international world order. The US is equally concerned about China’s strategic ambitions of building naval and military bases in places like Gwadar and Djibouti. This concern was also raised in Pentagon’s report on Chinese Military and Security Developments in 2017.
In sum, there is a fundamental disconnect between the US and Pakistan’s strategic outlooks on Afghanistan and the growing Chinese footprint in South Asia. The former views China as a competitor, while the latter considers it an all-weather friend and a strategic partner. Nonetheless, the agreement by both sides to continues dialogue and cooperation despite multiple challenges is a positive sign. Pakistan can certainly do more to help the US stabilize the situation in Afghanistan, but the US needs to offer concrete political concessions that can incentivize the reconciliation process. To gain Pakistan’s cooperation, the US needs a coherent strategy and a nuanced Afghan-South Asia policy which acknowledges Islamabad’s contributions, sacrifices and economic losses in the war on terror and which also appreciates and addresses its legitimate security concerns.