IN the recent past, trust deficit deepened between Pakistan and the United States when in his tweets, American President Donald Trump repeatedly revived the old blame game against Pakistan regarding safe havens of terrorist organizations. He appreciated the role of Pakistan’s regional rival India in Afghanistan. It is mentionable that the US-led NATO has relied heavily on Pakistan bound routes to sustain her forces and projects in Afghanistan. Routes through Pakistan considered shortest and cheapest and presently are safe from previously launched militant attacks. At the same time, the US-led NATO has always been searching for alternative routes to clear for history of uneven relations with Islamabad. Northern Distribution Network moving through Latvia, Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan had a cost of 250% more than the Pakistani routes. However, this time, the US is at odds with Russia and does not want to depend upon Russian-based supply routes.
Hence, America is exploring new route to sustain her forces in Afghanistan through Caspian Sea. In fact, this route is not totally new and has been considered in the past as well. This route originates in the Georgian port of Poti on the Black Sea and crosses Azerbaijan before arriving in Baku. From there, goods are loaded onto ferries for their journey across the Caspian Sea. The supplies make at Kazakhstan’s west coast ports of Aktau and Kuryk, and then proceed to Uzbekistan before entering Afghanistan. Kazakhstan has agreed for allowing supply of non-military nature of the goods only which comprises toothbrushes, fuels, computers, night vision goggles, concertina wires, packaged water, food and construction material. Coast on this route is even more than the Russian route, as it involves multiple loading and transfer charges.
The new route is not the case of simple mathematical calculations of cost, as it also involves complex inter countries politics. The US-Russian relations are tense at the moment and the later faces US sanctions. Nevertheless, the US needs to understand that Russia is a substantial regional power. Russia enjoys supremacy over the Caspian Sea and has considerable influence over regional countries, especially over the Central Asian States. History of Russia-Georgia relations is also not very bright. Moscow cannot allow Georgia to become open ally of Washington and NATO. Cost effectiveness as well as uncertainties of the regional politics will keep the proposed route under doubt which US will least like.
Now, relations of the US with Pakistan have started moving back to their lowest point, caused by Presidents Trump’s Tweet situation. But, it is good sign that the US authorities have hinted at better understanding of Pakistan’s concerns. Both the countries are engaged in a renewed dialogue process and better signals are emanating from each. Recent military action against anti-Pakistan militants in Afghanistan is also an important step in the right direction. On its part, Islamabad has also stepped up efforts in pursuing Afghan Taliban to come on the negotiation table. A few analysts view that recently floated Afghan Taliban letter to the US public as an effort, linked with Pakistan.
Besides, in view of the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s positive negotiation offer to the Taliban and their mutual response, one can see a ray of hope in Afghanistan. It is notable that during his visit to Kabul, the US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said on March 13, this year: “We do look toward a victory in Afghanistan…Not a military victory…the victory will be a political reconciliation with the Taliban, which has achieved a stalemate in recent years and shown little interest in conceding to the Kabul government.” Similarly, Pakistan has recently taken steps to address concerns of international community prior and after being put on the grey list of FATA. The US nod to engage in dialogue with Islamabad is seen as recognition to Pakistan’s importance in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, Pakistan and Afghanistan are on the course of redefining mutual relations. Latest high-level exchange of warmth has been witnessed during the visit of National Security Advisor (NSA) Lt Gen (Retd) Nasser Janjua to Afghanistan on March 17, 2018. NSA had meeting with the top Afghan leadership, including President Asharaf Ghani. In his remarks, NSA reiterated Pakistan’s commitment to help with peace in Afghanistan to improve bilateral relations. After having successful dialogue with the NSA, President Ghani had invited Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi for a visit to start comprehensive dialogue, who visited Kabul on April 6, this year. He had meeting with President Ghani and top officials of the Afghan government.
These meetings have helped narrow a trust deficit not only between Pakistan and Afghanistan, but also between Pakistan and the US and will prove to be a milestone in promoting regional peace. While the US and Afghan Administrations intend to pursue peace option through dialogue, all the stake holders in Afghanistan need to understand new ground realties. Instead of arm twisting, better option for Washington is engagement of the regional countries, especially with Pakistan. On the other side, Pakistan needs to put in her best efforts to help build peace in Afghanistan through its coordination with regional partners as well as with the extra regional partners. Nonetheless, instead of searching for alternative supply routes for Afghanistan, which are longer and very costly, the US-led NATO countries must better continue the short and cheapest route of supply through Pakistan. They need to explore new policy, not new routes.
—The writer is freelance columnist based in Lahore.