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Pakistan, US on same page? At least for now


As of March 2013, Pakistani and the American establishments are talking again. Afghanistan and Pakistan’s dealings with Iran (gas pipeline inaugurated on March 11) constitute the core of this dialogue that began unfolding soon after two high-profile visits from Washington i.e. the former Af-Pak pointman Marc Grossman, and an American three-star general, both went back from Islamabad, exuding the confidence that all key stakeholders were now on the same page as far as the reconciliation process was concerned.

Grossman’s successor David Pearce, too, built on the goodwill his successor build before bowing out. In fact most of Washington has pegged its hopes to the success of the reconciliation process ahead of presidential elections in Afghanistan by April 2014. The optimism also presupposes non-subversive conduct by those ruling Kabul right now. During his first visit to the Afghan capital, the new Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel also attempted to measure the optimism and the possibilities of a smooth reconciliation process in the next 13 months.

And on March 10, curious onlookers in Pakistan and Washington got a glimpse of what awaits them; “the explosions in Kabul and Khost yesterday showed that they are at the service of America and at the service of this phrase: 2014. They are trying to frighten us into thinking that if the foreigners are not in Afghanistan, we would be facing these sorts of incidents,” he said during a nationally televised speech about the state of Afghan women on Sunday, marking the International Women’s Day. Karzai also suggested that the US presence is destabilising – by saying that Afghanistan will have more stability post-2014.

In his long discussions with over three dozen journalists/anchors late February, the army chief General Ashfaq Kayani had already pointed out several pitfalls on the way to reconciliation, saying any measure of success in this process would keep upsetting the Kabul regime. He also cautioned that with an insecure, fated-to-exit Karzai increasingly becoming unpredictable, Washington and other NATO countries needed a deft diplomacy to preempt mischief.

Here in Islamabad, Pakistani officials are happier than ever before, as well as confident, that the mistrust between Islamabad and Washington has finally given way to a more pragmatic and empathetic view of Pakistan within the US administration. This, officials say, at least acknowledges that Pakistan remains a crucial partner and doing what is needed for the reconciliation. Under the burden of circumstances, Washington is no more buying into the insinuative reporting out of Kabul or New Delhi, Pakistani officials believe.

This sense of relief in Islamabad rests on two counts: Firstly, with the release of about 26 Taliban leaders, Islamabad demonstrated both its willingness and the leverage in the issue. And the US welcomed this gesture. It still holds another dozen or so Taliban leaders, including Mulla Biradar, but would not release any of them “until we have assessed the impact and relevance of those already released.”

This basically means Pakistan would not want to exhaust its cards very soon. The release of high-profile Taliban prisoners is on hold, a very highly placed military commander had told us recently.

It looks pretty obvious that both Pakistani and American officials, it seems, are still a little apprehensive as to whether all those Taliban being released by Pakistan are and will be able to influence the reconciliation process. We are not sure whether they go back to the combat or they stay on the side of reconciliation and try to influence that process.

Secondly, despite public brinkmanship on the issue of gas pipeline (inaugurated on March 11), the US administration seems reconciled with the inevitability of such a venture between Pakistan and Iran.

“They will keep publicly protesting and intimidating us on the pipeline issue the way we have been protesting drone strikes,” quipped an official, hinting at the possible understanding between the two countries. This official argued that sanctions on the pipeline are not entirely automatic. In the past, the US administration itself granted waivers in the name of “national security interests.”

Also, another official pointed out, both countries need an extremely collaborative framework in the run-up to the December 2014 withdrawal of the bulk of US and NATO troops.

Every seven minutes, one NATO container with critical cargo will be crossing into Pakistan from Afghanistan. The process, stretching a few months, would possibly include at least 80,000 containers, carrying millions of tons. Its safe passage through to Karachi requires a congenial climate at the institutional level within Pakistan, with the hope of no or little public threat or opposition to this venture. At least preemption of physical threats to this cargo would require a closely coordinated mechanism.

The top brass at the ministry of foreign affairs and the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi consider this leverage as crucial for pushing projects such as the pipeline as well as requesting more energy-focused US support.

But, given Pakistan’s internal instabilities, it would be a daunting task for the civilian and military leadership as to how well they play the situation to the country’s long-term benefit. Short-term tactical gains are hardly any panacea for this crisis-ridden country.

Pakistan also anticipates that the Taliban, vying for position with the future political set up that will culminate in a fresh, all-inclusive general election, would eventually stand down from their maximalist position and reconcile with the presence of a few thousand American-NATO troops in the country. After all, if the Taliban could talk to Karzai representatives in Paris, and if they are ready to accept assistance for setting up the Qatar office with the western financial and political facilitation, why should they be averse to the presence of foreign troops in their country, asked an extremely important Pakistani official?

Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and the author of the recently released book Pakistan: Before and After, published by Roli Books, India

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