M Ziauddin

Monday, October 19, 2015 – TOMORROW Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is embarking via London on a three-day official visit to the US on the invitation of President Barak Obama. The two leaders will meet in Washington on Thursday to discuss an agenda that has so far remained a closely guarded secret. Three issues, however, seem certain to be deliberated in some detail: Pakistan’s nuclear programme, mounting Indian pressure on the Line of Control (LoC) and Afghanistan.

The discussions on the nuclear issue are not likely to go beyond reiteration of the respective positions of the two sides. Pakistan has already rejected a trade- off deal that was offered through a report last week in Washington Post, considered to be the unofficial mouthpiece of the US government.

The WP report had indicated that the US would be prepared to pave the way for Pakistan’s acceptance in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, if Islamabad were to give up its ‘full spectrum’ nuclear deterrence policy and agree to subject its programme to even more ’intrusive’ international inspection.

With this deal off the table the Indian issue is likely to engage a more serious attention of the US President because of the fear that a steep escalation in the tensions between India and Pakistan could turn South Asia from a potential to a real nuclear flash-point.

It is presumed in some circles in Pakistan that in order to help lessen the Indo-Pak tensions and reduce such a possibility the US might offer to persuade India not to oppose the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project (the US is said to have expressed its own willingness to join it with energy projects) if Pakistan would be prepared to give up its reluctance to offer India transit trade facility to Afghanistan and beyond to Central Asia as well as Iran.

On Afghanistan Mr Obama is likely to try to read rather much more closely the mind of Pakistani leadership as the recent happenings in that war ravaged country has forced him to abandon on Thursday last his single most important foreign policy goal of finishing the war he had inherited by withdrawing all his troops (except 1000 soldiers needed to protect the US embassy in Kabul) from Afghanistan before his term ended.

The recent successes of Taliban seem to have forced the most powerful President of the world’s sole super power to extend the stay of about 10,000 US troops in Afghanistan for an additional one year. And these Taliban successes also seem to have forced President Putin of Russia, a country whose military prowess are second only to the US to propose on Friday last creation of a joint task force of ex-Soviet states to defend the region’s borders as he feared ‘violence in Afghanistan could spill over into Central Asia.’

The deal could pave the way for the deployment of Russian and other troops along the unstable Tajikistan’s 1300-kilometre frontiers with Afghanistan. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan also border Afghanistan. And Afghan government itself which has as many as 350,000 well equipped US trained troops has been so terrorized by these Taliban successes that it felt no qualms in requesting the US not to withdraw its remaining troops until the menace is completely defanged.

But Afghan Taliban seem to hold no terror for Pakistan. In fact according to Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, our former ambassador to the US, India and China, the endorsement of Mullah Akhtar Mansur as Mullah Omar’s successor took place in Kuchlak, 24 kilometres from Quetta (Regaining Afghan Trust—Dawn, October 17, 2015).

Pakistan never tires of reiterating that it believes in Afghan owned and Afghan led peace settlement in Afghanistan but not only readily agrees to arrange peace talks between Afghan government and the Taliban but actually succeeded in managing to arrange at least one round of such talks before the secret of Mullah Omar’s demise got out. Even now the world is seeking Pakistan’s cooperation in getting the Taliban back to the talk table.

One wonders what is in it for Pakistan. Islamabad denies that it has any influence over the Taliban. But on the other hand the world, especially Afghanistan and the US continue to accuse Pakistan of providing sanctuary to Afghan Taliban on its soil.

Could it be that fearing encirclement by India, Iran and Afghanistan (once the pro-Taliban are completely routed), Islamabadwishes to see a Taliban beholden to Pakistan continue to have a political say in Kabul? So the camouflaged efforts on the part of Islamabad in its own self- perceived self -interest to give the Taliban time and space to continue to remain a power to be reckoned with in Afghanistan?

The encirclement fears appear genuine if one has to see the mood of Modi’s India, the visible India-tilt of Kabul and the very cordial relations between New Delhi and Tehran. Still one does not feel thoroughly persuaded to accept our core establishment’s strategy to meet this challenge.

In the first place, one is not sure if the Taliban once start sharing the saddle in Kabul would not try to forcibly impose their version of faith even on those Afghans who do not wish to embrace it and simultaneously try to export it to Pakistan on war footings expecting all those Pakistani Jihadi militant groups openly ‘hiding’ in the Punjab to join in achieving what to all of them appears to be a divine mission.

Secondly, while the war continues between the Taliban and the US- Afghan troops, the Daish could use the resulting disorder to expand its own space in both Afghanistan and Pakistan as it did in Iraq and Syria following bloody clashes that ensued between Sunni and Shiite armed groups after the US troops left the place.

So, it would be in our actual national interest if our core establishment were to advise Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif rather than using up his meeting with President Obama for widening the mutual trust deficit he should utilize it to promote the country’s economic interests requesting the US leader for an increase in the flow of investment and expansion in trade in return for assisting the US in helping President Ashraf Ghani’s government to completely vanquish the forces that are threatening his country

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