The US Pak Row: Diplomatic Bargaining at the Edge
Prof. Ijaz Khan
The conflict in the Af Pak region has entered a new phase, which may be termed the pre 2014 phase is currently witnessing a serious row between United States and Pakistan, supposedly allies in the ‘War against Terrorism’. All parties want to influence the outcome in 2014 so that the post 2014 situation best meets its perceived interests. To influence that outcome Pakistan and U.S are pursuing policies that appear to be at odds. Both also consider the behavior of the other to be vital for achievement of its goal. So, they are using various means to influence each other’s behavior. The current row between the two allies can be explained as an overheated diplomatic bargaining.
President Obama announced disengagement from active combat in Afghanistan by 2014, thus, withdrawal of US combat troops from Afghanistan. This was announced along with a plan to enable US to do so after succeeding in Afghanistan and not losing the war there. The plan was based on US increased action at different levels; one was an increased military action through increased military presence, the so called ‘surge policy’, two raising of working Afghan Army and viable governance system. The strategy also includes peeling away as much Taliban as possible through negotiations. The purpose is to strengthen Afghan government in relation to Taliban/ Resistance. US does not intend to abandon Afghanistan, as it does not want the repeat of the 1990s, when Afghanistan became the safe haven for terrorists from all over the world, especially Al Qaeda.
Given adjustments for language, style and rhetoric, Pakistan’s Afghan policy has continuously been guided by two considerations; security threat perceptions from India and the question of Durand Line. Whether it was hosting most of the Mujahideen leaders of the 1980s since early 1970s or becoming a frontline state in the 1980s against Soviet Intervention in Afghanistan then, or the half cooked ideas of ‘Strategic Depth’ in the 1990s leading to the rise of Taliban. Pakistan appeared to have taken a U Turn after 9/11, however, that perception soon proved wrong by what Ahmad Rashid then called ‘double U Turn’. Pakistan has been playing the role of a broker between USA and Taliban even before 9/11. After 9/11, Pakistan while announcing support for US tried its best to salvage whatever was left of its Afghan policy that banked on a Taliban controlled Afghanistan then. Pakistan tried to bridge the gap between Taliban and USA, with the aim of saving Taliban from any military action against them. It continued its diplomatic relations with their government in Kabul to the very end. However, when USA attacked and dislodged Taliban government, Pakistan adjusted its policy accordingly. Since then its policy has aimed to get a government in Kabul in which it will have a strong say and Indian influence will be minimum. For that end, Pakistan has been acting against Taliban with a policy that will limit them but not eliminate them. Pakistan also wishes to see a complete withdrawal of US from Afghanistan, however only after meeting Pakistan’s concerns. Pakistan now wants to limit Afghanistan’s military capability as well, so a recent Pakistan Foreign Policy elite study proposed limiting of Afghanistan Army.
Pakistan’s relations with Taliban has been quite complex. They have been like you construct a canal to direct the flow of water, over whose flow you do not have much control. You stop Taliban from acting where you do not want them and shut your eye when they act where you want them. Pakistan, whether controls some of them and to what extent is debatable, however, it finds their defeat unless Pakistan’s concerns are met as not desirable. Its actions or inactions against them must be understood in this background. It is this policy which angers and frustrates US.
United States is also facing a dilemma. US is aware of Pakistan’s position and its role. It also knows how vital that role is for the current phase of the Afghan imbroglio. Adm. Mullen’s as well as other statements, including those from the White House itself, clearly establishes that US has not been able to make Pakistan act the way it wants to, with a policy which can largely be described as that of carrots and the threat of use of sticks.
With 2014 approaching fast, US choices are getting limited. US leadership seems to be getting convinced that carrots are not convincing enough neither are the threats. Pakistani policy makers know that US will bend backwards as much as possible to avoid materializing of the threats – to avoid use of sticks. They bank on US calculations that it must not entangle itself in a country bigger than both Afghanistan and Iraq put together. This does not mean that Pakistan is a match for US militarily. Even Pakistani establishment knows that. This means US would need much more troops afterwards and still much more resources. Pakistan cannot be just hit, destroyed and left for extremists to take over. If US ever decides to hot decisively against Pakistan then it has to commit for a much longer bigger and direct commitment than it can be worth in terms of interests – security or economic, both immediate or strategic. This is what emboldens Pakistan and pushes them to bargain hard.
Pakistan in return for a controlling role in Kabul with India absent (or limited to monitored economic presence) promises the post US/ISAF withdrawal Afghanistan will not be hosting Al Qaeda or any other international extremist group which can threaten US interests. For Americans, the problem is can Pakistan be trusted? i.e. is Pakistan capable, both administratively and conceptually to deliver? And more importantly can the US influence India enough to leave Afghanistan? Also would US want to ask India to leave Afghanistan? Pakistani policy aims at, consciously or unconsciously, a mutual interchange of the roles of India and China. India would be confined to economic/developmental role only which will be reported to Pakistan, which may imply an increased role for China, currently limited to economic activities only. Such a policy is in direct contradiction of long term US global and regional strategy, which envisages India as a close partner and China as a potential rival.
The hard fact is that both sides are engaged in a process of both public and not so public diplomatic bargaining. This bargaining has been a continuous process however; it has taken a very public and dangerous turn recently. Both sides are weighing their options and are basing their stands on calculations of the other side’s needs, weaknesses and strengths.
Pakistan is basing its strength on calculations that US will not destabilize a nuclear armed state, where religious extremists are quite strong; US public opinion is against another military engagement; US can hit Pakistan militarily within days even without its soldiers on ground, however, US will not be ready to leave a destroyed Pakistan to its fate, which most probably will then become a much bigger and Nuclear Armed pre 9/11 Afghanistan; its economy is not ready to foot the bill for reconstruction of Pakistan; US also needs Pakistan as a supply route for its commitments in Afghanistan. These assessments may not be off the mark totally.
In the increasingly limited choices, the question is what US will select. How much can Pakistan push? Has Pakistan miscalculated? Has the US reached the stage of no more? US would still prefer a way out without direct military engagement. A limited targeted action which has to be more than the current one of limited drone attacks or rare actions like that of May 2, is one option. That may mean use of bombing of selected targets not limited to Waziristan only. Such option will be difficult to keep limited. If Pakistan tries to react it will mean war, if does not it will mean a political destabilization which may become difficult to control and direct.
Anatol Lieven and many others argue that US must deal with Pakistan’s military. US have historically been able to get along with it much better. However, the current situation is a result of that history. Continuing with that history will result in more of the same, i.e. a continuous decay of governance and Talibanization of State and society to a level that it may no more be sustainable. In such a scenario, an over whelming US involvement inside Pakistan may be required, something which no one wants. Some analysts in Pakistan argue that Pakistan Military can give up Taliban and other extremist groups in the bargain. However, that seems unlikely as it would mean giving up of a security paradigm on which Pakistan’s military has built its case for controlling. Such an abandoning may also result in a domestic reaction from these forces (and their political supporters) that may again lead to a situation of violent destabilization no one wants.
If one rules out military action, and reliance on Pakistan’s military then what else can US do? The US is taking steps which include serious public statements and use of various diplomatic and economic instruments to make it clear that it will not back off and is ready to pay the price for having a solution to the Af Pak situation closer to what it has announced; Pakistan has no choice but to adjust. The recent Strategic Agreement between India and Afghanistan providing for an increased Indian role in Afghanistan may not have been prompted by the current crisis, but still has to be seen as a message to Pakistan. In Pakistan, the US can pursue its policy of strengthening civilian control of policy making more vigorously, thus gradually supporting a process of a fundamental change in Pakistan’s India centric security paradigm, which finds religious forces as useful tools of policy. The US, most probably is also calculating what and how much military action can be taken which will make its statements taken more seriously, without escalation to a point of no return.
Pakistan needs to re think its policy more pragmatically. It may not be as weak but there is a limit to which it can push. It must also calculate, how much pressure it can take, keeping in mind its domestic political, economic and administrative challenges. It must also address the question what it can do to dispel the almost worldwide perception that it supports or tolerates terrorism. The question cannot be brushed aside any more by demanding proof or calling it anti Pakistan conspiracy. Perceptions are more important than reality. If the recent Pakistan Foreign Policy Elite Study (carried out and published by Jinnah Institute, Pakistan and US Institute of Peace) is any indicator of Pakistani establishment perceptions then it appears to be quite off the mark. Pakistan simply cannot influence the size of Afghanistan Army or expect a veto over Indian role in Afghanistan, which the study among other things proposes. Pakistan needs to tie its Afghan policy with the facts of geography, routes and economy and let go of the policy of controlling Afghanistan through overt or covert power.
We are witnessing a bargaining becoming overly heated. Miscalculations on both sides can result in situation neither wants. History is full of actions based on miscalculations of other’s capabilities, interests and political will resulting into disasters. Most wars and other political disasters are a result of miscalculations rather than calculations. Pakistan’s political leadership has to assert itself and pro actively get involved in policy making. Political leadership is not as weak as it believes it is. It is high time the people of Pakistan takes control and put the country on a path where it is at peace with itself and its surroundings.
Published in Daily Times in two parts on 12 & 13 October 2011
Concluding Part II