US-Pakistan Ties: Re-negotiating the Terms of Engagement



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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

About The Author


Abdul Basit
Abdul Basit

Abdul Basit is Associate Research Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore. He can be reached at isabasit@ntu.edu.sg.



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