By Salman Bashir
It is absolutely possible to build a cogent and persuasive case for the rebuilding of Pakistan-US relations — and after months of acrimony, they may well be on the mend. Genuine joint interests bind the two nations together. It is fair to suggest that despite maintaining a hard and harsh veneer, the Trump administration might well have started to re-evaluate the relevance of Pakistan to its ongoing assessment of how to arrive at an acceptable end state in Afghanistan.
The visit of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford to Islamabad should, irrespective of the public optics, be seen as a significant point in the evolution of US-Pakistan relations. The strains and stresses of yesteryear were mainly caused, on both sides, by frustration fatigue over the objective ground situation with regards to terrorism and violence, and a certain propensity to over read each other.
Pakistanis are an emotional lot. A culture that places a premium on fidelity hinders objectivity and reason. Endless commentaries about the strategic or transactional nature of relations with the US have colored thinking and discourse not only at the popular level, but also among the elite community of strategic analysts.
On the US side, a sedate culture of reason and ruthless pragmatism, tinged with moral platitudes and ideals grounded in the present, fails to appreciate the sequence of “continuity” in human history. The context is almost absent when evaluating the here and now. American exceptionalism is enough of a virtue; why bother about the foibles and follies of the past? However, pragmatism also demands evaluating and fixing what is required in policies and campaigns gone wrong.
The cultural contrasts notwithstanding, there are good reasons for Pakistan and the US to rebuild their relationship. Besides the obvious comfort of being on the right side of the sole superpower, it is also important for Pakistan to be on the right side of history. Peace and stability in Afghanistan is of vital importance to Pakistan’s own stability, peace and prosperity. The US alone can prevent Afghanistan from sinking further into the vortex of conflict and despair for decades to come. Restoring the equilibrium of Afghan society, disturbed by a decade of Soviet invasion beginning in 1979, requires a steady hand. It will be brought about by the Afghans internally but some degree of correct prodding might be essential.
In this sense, the US alone has the necessary resources to deploy in the quest for peace. In almost 18 years, the context of the US campaign in Afghanistan has evolved from eliminating terrorism to counterinsurgency but, objectively speaking, what exists now is a civil war. On the positive side, the Afghan people have reached a point where they are tired of war and fratricidal bloodshed, and desire peace. Pakistanis, Afghans and Americans all know full well that there is no military solution to the problem.
The Taliban are a rural, tribal force that subsists on minimal resources. They seasonally fight and then return to their villages to plow their fields. This has become a habit and a way of life. The Taliban leadership also needs to understand that the time has come to graduate from guerrilla army to political entity. The elimination of Daesh from Afghanistan is a common concern and priority for all: the US, the National Unity Government, the Taliban and Pakistan. Recent US military strikes against Daesh have signaled renewed efforts to eliminate this menace.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan, has spoken of tranquil and open borders with Afghanistan. This is a realizable vision. Pakistan’s prime minister and the army chief have also been unambiguous about the country’s desire to seek an improvement in relations with India. Both have also of spoken about the normalization of trade between the nations and the revival of South Asian regional cooperation. These are weighty gestures that will require US encouragement and support.
It is to be hoped that the conversations between Pakistan and the US in the weeks ahead will be broad-based and constructive. Pakistan should assist the US in arriving at a political settlement in Afghanistan by doing all that is necessary. Of course, no one can guarantee the success of these efforts but Pakistan has no other option, and it must take concomitant risks with the clear and full understanding of the US and the National Unity Government.
On the other hand, the US should not entangle Afghanistan in its Indo-Pacific strategy. China is a contiguous neighbor of Afghanistan and can play an important role in building an economic foundation for peace there. Moreover, it enjoys the trust of all concerned, including the Afghan parties.
Reason and vested interests dictate that both the US and Pakistan take a dispassionate view and agree to restore full cooperation in the interests of “victory” — for peace in Afghanistan and the vast South Asian region.
(The author Salman Bashir is a Pakistani diplomat who served as the Foreign Secretary of Pakistan and Ambassador to China and India. Twitter: @SalmanB_Isb)