By Dr. Hasan Askari Rizvi
The recent diplomatic exchanges between Pakistan and the US show that, despite a divergence in their perspectives on regional affairs, they want to maintain active bilateral relations.
They need each other for different reasons. The US complains that Pakistan is not fully cooperative in ensuring an American victory in Afghanistan vis-a-vis the Afghan Taliban. However, Washington cannot substitute Pakistan with any other country because of geography and the strong societal linkages between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Similarly, Islamabad often complains about the neglect of its security interests by the US. However, Pakistan needs the US for obtaining modern technology and military equipment, as well as bilateral economic assistance and American support in international financial institutions. There are strong societal linkages between the two countries, ranging from elite connections and educational and cultural interaction to the presence of a large Pakistani diaspora in the US.
The US and Pakistan share the goal of eliminating extremism and terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But they diverge on specific policy options for coping with the different aspects of these twin threats.
American demands on Pakistan for countering terrorism can be understood with reference to the mercenary approach or the patron-client relationship. Pakistan emphasizes a shared and cooperative approach for countering terrorism that accommodates the common security interests of both sides.
The mercenary approach toward Pakistan is reflected in the tweet President Donald Trump issued on Jan. 1, 2018, which regretted that the US paid about $33 billion to Pakistan but, in return, got “nothing but lies and deceit.” The underlying assumption of this and similar American statements is that, when the US is providing huge funds to Pakistan, it should engage in countering terrorism on the guidelines provided by Washington.
The patron-client relationship explanation underlines a similar notion. When the US is patronizing Pakistan by providing financial assistance for socioeconomic development and military sales and grants, it must respect the interests and concerns of the patron. According to these approaches, the US expects Pakistan to take “decisive” and “result-oriented” action against the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani group.
The US authorities review their relationship with Pakistan in the context of their difficulties in Afghanistan. On the one hand, they want Pakistan to launch military action against the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network, which, the US thinks, have safe and permanent bases in Pakistan. On the other hand, the US wants Pakistan to encourage the Afghan Taliban to enter into a dialogue with the Kabul government and the US for a political settlement in Afghanistan. These are contradictory demands. If Pakistan launches a major military action against the Afghan Taliban, how could Pakistan persuade it to engage in a peaceful dialogue?
It is doubtful Islamabad has sufficient clout over the Afghan Taliban to persuade it to engage in result-oriented talks with the US and the Kabul government. Pakistan’s military action in the tribal areas has dislodged all kinds of groups from these areas, including the Taliban. There are no permanent training camps or safe havens for the Afghan Taliban in the tribal areas. However, there is regular movement of people across the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in both directions. Some Afghan Taliban fighters do cross into Pakistan and melt into the 2 million registered and unregistered Afghan refugees; or they can easily mix with the local population, some of whom may have family links. Such traffic could be controlled by a cooperative monitoring of the border by Pakistan, Afghanistan and the US. There is currently hardly any cooperation from the US and Afghanistan in this respect. Pakistan is slowly building a fence, but the Afghan government is opposed to border fencing.
Pakistan’s security concerns pertain to the permanent presence of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan in Afghanistan, whose territory is used by the group to launch cross-border terrorist attacks. Islamabad is also worried about India’s alleged financial support for Baloch separatist groups and some Pakistani Taliban groups based in Afghanistan. The periodic criticism expressed by the US and India on construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor also causes concern.
A harmonious interaction between Pakistan and the US requires a counter-terrorism strategy that accommodates the security concerns of both sides, rather than the US demanding Pakistan follow its security priorities in return for funding. The relationship should be based on mutually shared considerations rather than on American difficulties in Afghanistan.
(Dr. Hasan Askari Rizvi is a Pakistan-based political analyst. Twitter: @har132har)