What is Pakistan’s role in regional conflicts? Why the Afghanistan remain in the vortex of bloody attacks? If Pakistan decides, there will be peace in neighbouring Afghanistan. The US has a double challenge in Afghanistan; as is obvious one is Afghanistan, the other is Pakistan. Unfortunately, Pakistan has made itself so important that the US cannot think of any other alternative for its problems in Afghanistan….writes Dr Sakariya Kareem
The top US Commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson recently stated that Pakistan’s behavior had not changed since President Donald Trump announced his South Asia strategy, clearly indicating that Pakistan had no intentions of improving itself and would carry on with its policy of supporting terrorist activities in Afghanistan. Nicholson made these remarks in response to questions after a meeting of the NATO Defence Ministers in Brussels. He was asked if the US had observed better cooperation from Pakistan with regard to Taliban sanctuaries.
The point that Nicholson made was two-fold. First, was the expectation of action from Pakistan on terrorist sanctuaries and this was made clear by many US officials, starting right at the top with President Trump. While Trump had virtually threatened Pakistan, the threat remained empty as the US realised it needed to engage with Pakistan to get Islamabad to actually do something. Engagement at the highest level, unfortunately has only further emboldened Pakistan and thus Nicholson appears to be expressing a sense of disappointment.
Even James Mattis, US Secretary for Defense had a message for Pakistan at Brussels, which hinged on talking to Pakistan and being able to convince them of the need to rein in the Taliban. What would happen if Pakistan did not listen? Then the US could consider doing something like cutting off aid or imposing sanctions. That is part of the process of engagement that the US has had with Pakistan and it should come as no surprise that for all the bluster, the US has not closed the door on Pakistan for its open support to terrorist groups like the Taliban and the LeT.
The present US predicament lies at the heart of the ties that Washington has with Islamabad. For years, the US has tried with little success, to get Pakistan to stop its nurturing of international terrorism. Notably, Pak Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif had earlier publicly referred to the US raising the mujahedeen to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, however, he did not add that it was General Zia who used the opportunity to misuse US weapons and diverted them towards the proxy war against India. While it is historically correct that the US proxy war in Afghanistan led to the new wave of terrorism, there is little doubt that it was Pakistan which wholeheartedly supported it and created more groups that today remains the focus of the global jihadi movement.
The US has a double challenge in Afghanistan; as is obvious one is Afghanistan, the other is Pakistan. Unfortunately, Pakistan has made itself so important that the US cannot think of any other alternative for its problems in Afghanistan. There are two areas in which this is so. First, is the hold that Pakistan has over the Afghan Taliban. The second is the US dependence on Pakistani territory for carriage of goods and oil to Afghanistan. An examination of each of these factors is necessary here.
The world is aware that it was former Interior Minister under Pak prime minister Benazir Bhutto who raised the Taliban. This operation was later taken over by the ISI. It is well established that the Quetta Shura of the Taliban is based in the city of Quetta and family members of the Taliban live in Pakistan. There is also the Peshawar Shura which was created by the Pak ISI to counter the Quetta Shura. These facts are well known and it is worth remembering that in the last couple of years, Pakistan has been trying to shift the base of Taliban operations from Quetta to Helmand in Afghanistan. In fact, Taliban chief Akhundzada Habaitullah had travelled from Quetta to Helmand earlier in mid-2017 with precisely that objective in mind.
The second aspect is the ground line of communications which Pakistan provides for US/NATO logistics, supplies and fuel. This dependence is said to be over 70% and Pakistan knows it. Karachi harbor is the recipient of US war materials for overland transport to Afghanistan. Of course, in the earlier days, the US brought in oil and fuel from the Northern route through Central Asia. This route has somewhat reduced because Russia has tightened the screws in the North. Thus Pakistan is aware of the pivotal role it plays in keeping supplies to Afghanistan. So what is the alternative for the US? Actually, very little!
However, India offers an alternative and strangely so does Iran. That is if President Trump is willing to see Iran as a lesser evil and work with Iran on Afghanistan. Outlandish and preposterous is what Washington would say. But let’s think about it. After all, the Iranian ports of Bandar Abbas and Chahbahar do offer access to Afghanistan. And surely, India can lend a helping hand, by allowing US planes and ships to come to the West Coast. Truly there is an opportunity here for India to provide the space for US forces to be equipped. The exact contours such cooperation could involve Iran, and diplomacy would require an Iran-India tango.
However, in the larger US context there is need for a serious re-think on how it intends to deal with Pakistan. And this will have to be done by de-linking the Taliban with Pakistan. Let the Afghan government decide if it wants to talk to the Taliban. This is not a task for the QCG or for that matter any other body. The other factor is to focus on Pakistan on the basis of deliverables as was actually done by the US when they sent to Islamabad some time ago a list of ‘twelve asks’. Any links to the twelve tasks of Hercules, one wonders?
Details of these ‘asks’ are sketchy, but what matters more to the US and Afghanistan is a likely US response if Pakistan does not deliver on these ‘asks’. Given past experience, it appears unlikely that the US would have premised their ‘asks’ on imposition of sanctions or something quite dramatic as that. It is more likely that the US would have proposed giving something to Pakistan as an incentive for fulfilling the list of ‘asks’. That sums up the narrative of US-Pak relations and their future trajectory as far as Afghanistan and terrorism goes. This should, in essence, be a lesson for all countries in South Asia, including India and provide a way forward to all engagement between India and the US on Afghanistan.