ERRATIC presidential tweet and follow-up statements from America were interpreted by Pakistani public as another betrayal. While President Trump may have largely forgotten the text of his new year Pakistan bashing tweet, the bureaucratic echelons of both the countries are finding ways and means of evolving a face-saving environ for both sides, especially Trump. Pakistan’s response was measured, no fireworks at official-level and readiness to cooperate with international counter terrorism effort was quite disarming. Americans were quick to pick the threads, first soother from American side was that the aid has been suspended and not terminated and that it would be restored as and when preconditions are met by Pakistan.
A high level American delegation quietly slipped into and out of Islamabad, out of the media glare, for negotiations on hammering a mutually acceptable way forward. Now, there is a clear-cut statement from American side ruling out direct military intervention in Pakistan. So, much of the spirit of tweet stands defanged. Notwithstanding, all is not well. Trump administration has moved towards a strategy of “compellence” towards Pakistan, it may achieve some objectives while at the sometime unleash some unintended consequences. However, there is no likelihood that bilateral relationship could slip beyond the point of no return.
Up to $2 billion of the US equipment and funding is at stake. However, with US aid declining significantly in recent years, Pakistani economy improving and Beijing just a phone call away, the negative effects would be “marginal” in the short to medium term. Hence, means of pressure at American disposal are limited. After the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, aid increased substantially, approaching $3-4 billion annually at its peak in 2010. From then on, it has been declining very sharply. Last year, it was around $750 million. However, Pakistan is not likely to take the issue of blockage of CSF disbursements lightly. Factors impeding peace in Afghanistan are numerous. Whatever the American perceptions, it is an oversimplification to attribute failure of international counterterrorism effort in Afghanistan to one or two insurgent groups. It calls for a comprehensive reappraisal by Americans, neighbours of Afghanistan and Afghan govt itself. Most of the intra-Afghanistan indicators present abysmal matrix. And, disenchanted with futility of America counterterrorism effort, all neighbours of Afghanistan are taking measures to safeguard their respective interests, some of these steps are tangential with end objective of Afghan peace. Singling out Pakistan for all that has happened or may happen in Pakistan is not a fair deal. Taliban now control over 43 per cent of Afghanistan’s districts, including most of the outer perimeter of the country; hence they do not need sanctuaries in Pakistan. Non-combatant civilian casualties due coalition aerial bombing are on the rise, thus boosting anti-American sentiment in effected areas. Afghan Defence Forces are demoralized as they are dying in droves and are no match to Taliban’s’ tactical acumen.
Moreover, the US State Department Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy Steven Goldstein said on January 09 that US stands ready to work with Pakistan in combatting all terrorists without distinction. He said the US hopes “to be able to renew and deepen our bilateral security relationship when Pakistan demonstrates its willingness to aggressively confront the Taliban network, the Haqqani Network, and other terrorist and military groups that operate from its territory”. He added that the US would like Pakistan to come to the table and assist in efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. In the meanwhile, David Hale, the US envoy to Pakistan has sent back the message that Pakistan will continue supporting counter-terrorism efforts. “The Pakistani people have suffered greatly from terrorism, and its security forces have been effective in combatting the groups that target Pakistan’s interests. So, it’s to their benefit to join with us in helping resolve this matter. America is hopeful that Pakistan will come back to the table and do “what they told us that they would do.”
In another hedging effort senior Pakistani civil, military and intelligence officials on January 10 briefed foreign envoys posted in Islamabad about the country’s achievements in the fight against terrorism. Except India, all ambassadors and heads of missions stationed in Islamabad were invited. Representatives from the US embassy were also in attendance. Briefing provided details about the success of Operation Zarb-e-Azb and Radd-ul-Fassad which had eliminated terrorist presence in Pakistan. They were also briefed about the terrorist threat emanating from safe havens and sanctuaries in Afghanistan. Details were also provided on how Indian belligerence and unhelpful posturing is distracting Pakistan’s counterterrorism efforts and how an active RAW/NDS nexus is verifiably working to undermine Pakistan’s internal stability.
Bilateral meeting indicates that Pakistan and US are inclined to repair the damaged relations. So far, all indicators point that Pakistan will be able to manage the tweet generated crisis in a prudent way. In the broader perspective, American self-appraisal coupled with its cooperation with regional states may arrest its downslide in Afghanistan. And for this, America has to get out of the habit of scapegoating others for its failures. However, with a typical “ugly American” leading the American nation, such a preposition is unlikely to evolve. Probably a stalemate would prevail until Trump presidency is over.
—The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.