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US-Pakistan embrace a fillip for peace

Posted by seumasach on October 25, 2010


Asia Times

26th October, 2010

The big news over the weekend is that the United States and Pakistan have kissed and made up. What was played up in the recent weeks as a nasty showdown between the two partners, with each side growling dangerously and scratching the other almost to bleeding, turned out to be deceptive feline foreplay.

The outcome of the three-day foreign minister-level US-Pakistan strategic dialogue that concluded on Friday once again confirms the reputation of the two sides as consummate partners: one moment snarling viciously, to the alarm of onlookers; and the next, locked in a perplexing embrace.

The balance sheet of strategic dialogue has now visibly tilted in Pakistan’s favor. What the Pakistani military has offered Uncle Sam in return remains for the present a nuptial secret, but it will become known. Most certainly, it has got to do with the Afghan endgame. Considering US accommodation of some of the big-ticket items on Pakistan’s wish-list, it can be surmised that Pakistan has offered meaningful accommodation of the US game plan in Afghanistan.

United States President Barack Obama’s White House meeting with the visiting Pakistani delegation (which included powerful army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kiani) has come as a political bonanza for Islamabad. The White House readout on the meeting said that Obama underlined the US’s readiness to advance the US-Pakistan relationship “toward a true partnership based on mutual respect and common interests”.

What is even more important is that Obama agreed with the Pakistani delegation on the “need for regional stability and specifically on the importance of cooperating toward a peaceful and stable outcome in Afghanistan“.

For Pakistan at least, “need for regional stability” is invariably code for underscoring that enduring peace and stability in the region is not achievable unless the Kashmir issue is resolved. To link Pakistan’s concern in this regard with cooperation over Afghanistan is a huge diplomatic victory for Pakistan. In short, the US would appear to have recognized that the Afghan problem and Pakistan-India tensions are interlinked and need to be tackled simultaneously.

Equally, Obama made an open commitment that he would make a “stand-alone” visit to Islamabad in 2011 and also host President Asif Ali Zardari in Washington. The fact that he made the announcement on the eve of his visit to India (November 6-9), disregarding the strange feelings it might generate in the Indian mind regarding a “hyphenation” in the US’s regional policy towards the two South Asian adversaries, shows the high US dependence on Pakistani goodwill and cooperation over Afghanistan.

Conversely, Obama’s proposed visit to Pakistan is also expected to “incentivise” the Pakistanis to “perform” convincingly in stabilizing the Afghan situation in the critical months ahead.

United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went out of the way to say that the US had “no stronger partner when it comes to counter-terrorism efforts against the extremists” in the region. The US has openly, and ostentatiously, buried the hatchet, which was dramatized in large measure by US media reports, based on briefings by administration officials, over an alleged Pakistani double game in the Afghan war.

From Pakistan’s point of view, the US also made an “enduring commitment to help Pakistan plan for its defense needs” and in this connection, Clinton announced that the Obama administration would ask the US Congress for additional military assistance for Pakistan of a whopping US$2 billion, spread over the 2011-2016 period.

Significantly, a charade that the US military assistance is to beef up Pakistan’s capability to undertake counter-insurgency operations in the tribal areas that border Afghanistan has been set aside. The latest formulation is that the additional assistance is for planning Pakistan’s “defense needs”, which are indeed principally and paramountly vis-a-vis India. In short, the US stands committed to help Pakistan maintain reasonable parity with India in conventional military strength.

The US is making this commitment in disregard of strong Indian protestations – including during the recent visit by Indian Defense Minister A K Antony to Washington – that the US has been handing over to Pakistan weapon systems, such as those for itsnavy, that have absolutely nothing to do with hunting down Osama bin Laden or exterminating the remnants of al-Qaeda from the region.

In response to the Indian demarche, all that the US officials are maintaining is that the overall Pakistan-India military balance will not be upset. Clearly, the Obama administration has underscored the US’s commitment to remain responsive to the Pakistani military’s needs with regard to India even after an Afghan settlement has been worked out.

Clinton revealed that the Obama administration had taken on board Pakistan’s request for concluding a civil nuclear cooperation agreement on par with what the US signed with India in 2008. Clinton acknowledged that the item figured in the deliberations of the strategic dialogue in Washington and that further consultations and negotiations would be carried forward at the level of “experts and officials”.

This also means that Pakistan has crossed the hump, finally, on the issue. Also, the US has decided to virtually acquiesce with China’s move to set up two more nuclear reactors in Pakistan. So far, the US has been taking the position that given Pakistan’s questionable track record in nuclear proliferation, Washington would have a problem in reaching a nuclear deal with Islamabad on par with its agreements with New Delhi.

The joint statement issued after the strategic dialogue underlines the US’s determination to develop with Pakistan a “strategic, comprehensive and long-term partnership … based on shared values, mutual respect and mutual interests”.

It is an almost-identical formulation that the Indians, who considered themselves as “natural allies” of the US, would probably get. The two sides have also resolved to “promoting peace, stability and transparency throughout the region”. In sum, the US has acknowledged that as a quid pro quo for the help and cooperation from Pakistan in settling the Afghan problem, the US will ensure that the latter’s legitimate interests in Kabul are safeguarded and will remain mindful of the Pakistani concerns over India.

What emerges is a finely, intricately-balanced matrix of compromise whereby Pakistan will not torpedo the sort of Afghan settlement that the US is keenly seeking – ensuring the Taliban’s acceptance of the US’s and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s long-term military presence in Afghanistan – and in return the US will accommodate Pakistan’s interest in having a friendly regime in Kabul and will remain deeply engaged with Pakistan on a long-term footing politically, militarily and economically. It is a signal success for Pakistani diplomacy that it has brought overall “regional stability” into the centerpiece of US-Pakistan strategic ties.

How this complex matrix of understanding translates on the ground is another matter. Several imponderables remain. What happens to Taliban leader Mullah Omar, whom the US reportedly wants to keep out of the Afghan settlement? Will the Haqqani network be brought in under credible Pakistani guarantees? Will there be a stepping up of the hunt for bin Laden, who senior US officials have pinpointed recently as being sheltered in relative comfort inside Pakistan by its security agencies? Will Pakistan settle for Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s blueprint of a broad-based settlement that accommodates various non-Pashtun groups? How does the US ensure that the Indian influence in Kabul is kept below a threshold acceptable to Pakistan?

Karzai and the erstwhile Northern Alliance groups, too, will be watching how Pakistan goes about implementing the understanding reached in Washington. For Karzai, there has never been any doubt that Pakistan has a crucial role to play in reaching any workable Afghan settlement while his ties with India are at best of tactical importance. But the big issue is Karzai’s own political future.

Of late, the US has made up with Karzai and placed itself manifestly behind his reconciliation plan with the Taliban. But his unhappy experience has also been that he comes under pressure the moment Washington revives its dalliance with the Pakistani military. The outcome of the US-Pakistan strategic dialogue in Washington is of existential importance to Karzai.

Similarly, the erstwhile Northern Alliance groups will be wary of the US-Pakistan framework of cooperation, which they might suspect will lead to a return of Pashtun dominance in the Afghan power structure. The political reality is that there is a deep trust deficit between these groups and the Pakistani military’s Inter-Services Intelligence. The non-Pashtun perception will be that the Pakistani military will ultimately take the Americans for a ride as the pressure of time begins to work on the Obama administration to show “results” in the war in terms of the exigencies of US domestic politics.

What we may expect is that the Afghan peace talks could now accelerate and even gain traction. Obama may then be able to face the US’s NATO allies at their summit in Lisbon next month with far greater composure. He may even find himself in a position to present a somewhat plausible Afghan peace plan that enables Western countries to heave a sigh of relief that there is light at the end of the long tunnel that has been their bloody “combat mission” in the Hindu Kush.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

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