Islamabad to Washington: “The choice is yours”

Islamabad to Washington: “The choice is yours”

By Syed Ali Zia Jaffery

After a lapse of 20 years, the United States is leaving Afghanistan. Its withdrawal, as evidenced by the evacuation of the Bagram Airfield, is precipitous, unconditional and dissociated from progress towards a political settlement in Afghanistan. This hasty wrap-up has emboldened the Taliban, a group with whom the United States cracked a peace deal in 2020.

The Taliban are capturing district after district while Afghan forces are either fleeing or surrendering. The fear of the intensification of civil war leading to a probable Taliban takeover has gripped stakeholders and pundits alike. Pakistan, a country that neighbors Afghanistan and has facilitated the Afghan peace process, is likely to bear the brunt of the internecine conflict in that country. Pakistan has duly warned the international community, including the U.S., that scapegoating it would not cut it. However, the U.S. expects from Pakistan to play a major role in cajoling and reining in the Taliban, while also providing Washington with Over-The Horizon (OTH) capabilities.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has rejected outright the proposal of Islamabad giving Washington military basing rights. He has, repeating his decades-old view, argued that Pakistan will only partner the U.S. in peace, because becoming a party to the U.S.-led War on Terror has cost the country immensely men, material, and prestige. In his Washington Post article, PM Khan stressed that Washington’s military-heavy policy was but a failure in Afghanistan, and questioned the utility of using bases in Pakistan. That said, Pakistani officials, including PM Khan, have expressed their desire to change the nature of ties with the U.S. Pakistan wishes to position itself as a geoeconomic attraction, one that connects the East and the West. Though Islamabad wants to develop civilized, evenhanded, and broad-based ties with Washington, the other side is seemingly unwilling to look beyond the Afghan prism as an anchor of these topsy-turvy relations. Washington’s reticence to engage with Islamabad is counterproductive for Pakistan due to a number of reasons, out of which three are noteworthy.

One, Washington’s overestimation of Islamabad’s capacity to influence the Taliban is something that will distract it from taking concrete steps towards bringing Afghan parties together within a political dispensation. Scapegoating Pakistan and pressuring it to do things it can’t would only go on to mar the even otherwise dim prospect of a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan. The three-way mistrust between Kabul, Islamabad, and Washington would be bad news for U.S. counterterrorism goals. The power vacuum, coupled with a raging war to control Kabul, will give more space to outfits like the Islamic State (ISKP), Al-Qaeda,  and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan(TTP), to consolidate and harm U.S. and Pakistani interests. It is reasonable to argue that, to see Afghanistan as a safe haven for anti-U.S. terrorists, is something the U.S. can ill-afford, especially after it has left the region. Thus, rather than browbeat Pakistan, the U.S. should do two things. One, it must tailor its expectations of Pakistan while understanding that, as direct stakeholders of peace in Afghanistan, there is still a lot that Pak-U.S. cooperation and coordination can achieve besides of the situation in that country. Two, the U.S. should engage with Pakistan on other issues, ranging from climate change to trade. This is primarily important because it will dispel the impression that the U.S. is, by and large, abandoning Pakistan, like it somewhat did after the end of the Soviet-Afghan war. However, it must be stressed that, Pakistan, as clearly articulated by PM Khan, cannot join forces with the U.S. in its kinetic campaigns against the Taliban and other groups in Afghanistan. What Washington needs to realize in the context of Afghanistan is this: Afghanistan’s future cannot be shaped by the application of force, especially on a group that the U.S. itself legitimized and rewarded. Thus, U.S. interests would only be served if it constructively and meaningfully pushes all parties to come together to bring about lasting peace in Afghanistan. Given that Pakistan’s economic and security interests are tied to stability in Afghanistan, it is ideally-poised to help the U.S. launch a series of non-kinetic, non-coercive means to advance peace in that country. Hence, it is imperative for the U.S. to understand what Pakistan’s sets of capabilities and interests are. Playing the victim-card would not help the U.S. in any manner.

Two, the U.S. giving a lukewarm response to Pakistan’s willingness to recalibrate Pak-U.S. relations is further solidifying the ever-burgeoning ties between Pakistan and China. Pakistan has consistently said it will not embroil itself in a zero-sum game when it comes to its ties with China and the U.S. In a recent New York Times interview, PM Khan said: “why do we have to choose sides — either it’s the U.S. or China? I think we should have a relationship with everyone.” That said, PM Khan has time and again heaped praise on China for its unflinching support to Pakistan in times of trials and tribulations. Thus, strengthened by the progress in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Sino-Pak relations are fast becoming a factor of stability in and for Pakistan, something that is likely to increase the costs of U.S. inflexibility and torpor towards that country. If, despite its openness to offering the U.S. economic platforms, the latter continues to regurgitate its do-more mantra and China positions itself as a safe bet for Pakistan, the U.S. would find it difficult to compete with and confront China in the region. Such a milieu will likely transmogrify the course of Sino-U.S. conflagration in the region and beyond, much to the detriment of the U.S. At a time when Pakistan needs countries to join it in its grander, mutually-beneficial vision of economic connectivity and integration, the U.S. becoming an indirect spoiler will not go down well with that country. That China is fully committed to helping Pakistan to sprint ahead is something that should worry the U.S. Indeed, China succoring Pakistan at a time when the U.S. seems disinterested in rejigging Pak-U.S. relations will further reduce U.S. goodwill in Pakistan. Resultantly, the widening trust-deficit will make it harder for the U.S. to elicit Pakistan’s support, if and when needed in Afghanistan, or in other areas going forward. Thus the time for the U.S. to enhance robust, multi-pronged, and effective engagements with Pakistan is now.

Three, the U.S. seemingly turning away from Pakistan while deepening its military, strategic, and defense relations with India will further vitiate and complicate Pak-U.S. relations. With PM Khan having repeatedly shed light on the U.S. using Pakistan as a hired gun and not recognizing its meritorious sacrifices in the fight against terrorism, Washington militarily bolstering a New Delhi that foments terrorism in Pakistan, threatens to seize Pakistani territory, and whips up its atrocities in Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IIOJK) will add to ill-will between the two countries. Further, that Pakistan has vowed to safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity is reason enough for it to look askance at the military component of Indo-U.S. relations. The ensuing trepidations will force Pakistan to add depth and cogency to its defense relations with China while also building upon its steadily improving equation with Russia. With Afghanistan in the grips of a bloody civil war, Iran being a U.S. adversary, and India faring poorly in mounting an economic and military challenge for China, Washington’s capacity to stem Beijing’s meteoric rise in the region will greatly diminish. If Washington wants to pose a formidable threat to Beijing, it should look to make economic incursions in the region. Pakistan is altogether ready to host economic bases for the U.S. and its allies. If the U.S. continues to prioritize propping up one country militarily against China, it will not only contribute towards destabilizing the region but also make it more fertile for its enemies to operate in with impunity. Thus, it is important for the U.S. to change the character of its policy in South Asia.

All in all, it is fitting to enunciate that, Washington’s refusal to fathom and engage with a different, dynamic Islamabad could be costlier than it can afford. More importantly, betting on the wrong horse and policy methods in South Asia will impede Washington’s bid to lead the world again. Pakistan’s plea to reset the terms of engagement with the U.S. offers a conduit for the latter to establish a foothold that, though light, will be effectual in dealing with China. The ball is now in Washington’s court.

Syed Ali Zia Jaffery is Research Associate, Center for Security, Strategy and Policy Research (CSSPR), University of Lahore, Pakistan.  

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July 2021