The noose is loosening

US-Pakistan Relations

Despite US President Donald Trump’s belligerence and pointed accusations of ‘duplicitous’ behaviour against Pakistan, the proverbial noose around Islamabad’s neck is set to loosen with the revised US plans. The primary US lens and prism through which the Pakistani state is assessed in Washington DC is that of the US perception of Islamabad’s utility and actions or inactions on matters pertaining to Afghanistan.

While the Sino-Pak relationship is a matter of growing geostrategic concern, as is the festering Indo-Pak dynamic, yet it is the latest US appreciation of the Pakistani relevance in its ostensible backyard of ‘Strategic Depth’, Afghanistan, that provokes a US reaction and policy change.

Beyond all polite ‘diplomatesse’ of promoting religious tolerance, gender rights, freedom of speech and non-violence — the continuing societal morass in Pakistan, like the Aasia Bibi case, pandering to radical organisations like Tehreek-e-Labbaik, continuing persecution of minorities like the Ahmadiyas or even a cabinet minister hobnobbing with an internationally-designated terrorist Hafiz Saeed (carrying a $10 million bounty) are not really germane from a US policy perspective.

The first indicator of a US-initiated thaw emerged last month, when Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan revealed that he had received a letter from Trump seeking an explicit Pakistani role and assistance in resolving the 17-year-long Afghan conflict. The onerous task of facilitating engagement and rapprochement with the Afghan Taliban was clearly mentioned. This was the first indicator of a major U-turn in US policy towards Islamabad, which had gone into a cold freeze since 2011 and worsened with Trump’s suspension of special assistance to Pakistan, on account of its continuing double-game on terror.

Through his term, Trump has reiterated his threats and frustrations with Pakistan as it purportedly didn’t ‘do a damn thing’ for US interests. Suddenly, US’ own impatience with its efforts and results in Afghanistan and scepticism about the strategy in Kabul has led to a recalibration of the calculus that will now necessitate Pakistan’s active intervention in managing Afghanistan.

The US war in Afghanistan was costing an unsustainable $45-50 billion annually — $13 billion for US forces, $5 billion for Afghan forces, and the rest on logistical support. Added to the cost factor is the grim reality that the Afghan Taliban now controls more ground area than it ever did since 2001. This was the background to Trump’s sudden announcement of slashing troops by 7,000 (from approximately 15,000) in Afghanistan and pulling out from Syria.

Expectedly, the sudden decision caught all the stakeholders and even his own team members by surprise and Trump’s Defence Secretary, James Mattis, openly disagreed with him and put in his papers in protest. Earlier, Mattis had been key in maintaining the ‘do-more’ chorus with Pakistan, as indeed shoring up US military strength in Afghanistan with an additional 4,000 troops.

Afghanistan itself is less than enthusiastic about this new US approach and recently the beleaguered Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had appointed two staunch Pakistani critics, Assadullah Khalid and Amrullah Saleh to the sensitive posts of defence and internal affairs, respectively. This new US plan for Afghanistan will force change from all sides and even Imran Khan, who had earlier said that meeting Trump would be a ‘bitter pill to swallow’, has now tasked his newly appointed envoy in Washington DC, to ink the earliest dates for a summit with Trump.

Meanwhile, the incorrigible Trump, while welcoming the prospects of such a meeting ‘very soon’, noted Pakistan’s historical machinations when he stated, “We want to have a great relationship with Pakistan, but they house the enemy. They take care of the enemy. We just can’t do that.”

In the midst of this renewed and emerging US-Pak bonhomie, a bill seeking to remove Pakistan as a ‘Major Non-NATO ally’, by Republican Senator Andy Biggs, will in all probability be ignored and spurned for lack of support. Even the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which had put Pakistan on the ‘Grey List’ in June last year, on account of concerns pertaining to terror-financing, and had expressed its dissatisfaction on the progress made by Pakistan in a review report in October – may relegate these concerns to the backburner, given the gathering momentum to ‘unbound’ Pakistan.

Implications for India

India could again get adversely impacted on account of US realpolitik and priorities, as was the case in 80s and 90s, prior to the ‘war on terror’. While India has immense strategic import for the US need to counterbalance China, the practical play of the Indian ‘pivot’ will be secondary to the immediate necessities of managing Afghanistan, which is predicated on a vastly improved US-Pak relationship.

In the current scheme of things and with the dire economic urgencies besetting Pakistan, Imran Khan will be more than willing to tone down the anti-US rhetoric and bargain for financial reciprocity. This is a potential win-win situation for Pakistan for now, as it gets the opportunity to re-enter the Afghan domain officially, as also, to unfreeze the crucial US aid for Pakistan as it has been scurrying to collect the much-needed financial bailout from the Gulf sheikhdoms, China and IMF.

India will be mired in its own domestic compulsions, especially in an election year. Focus on foreign policy will take a back-seat, save for some vacuous muscular posturing that will essentially be directed at its domestic constituents rather than focusing on long-term foreign policy moves.

That said, it will still not be a cakewalk for Pakistan as neither is the Afghan Taliban a monolithic entity under the full control of the Pakistani state, nor can the Pakistani military safeguard itself against the moves of its own Frankenstinian ‘non-state actors’, who could undo all security-related calculations and commitments. The US can also as easily retract from its own stated policies, even if for now it offers a hand to the Pakistanis. 

(The writer is a former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry)

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