US Defence Secretary Mark Esper recently held a telephonic conversation with Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and reaffirmed America’s commitment to a long-term, mutually beneficial security partnership, the Pentagon said.
Esper expressed his appreciation for Pakistan’s support to the Afghanistan reconciliation process following the February 29, US-Afghanistan Joint Declaration and signing of the US-Taliban Agreement, Chief Pentagon Spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman said.
During the call, Esper reaffirmed the department of defence’s commitment to a long-term, mutually beneficial security partnership with the government of Pakistan, Mr. Hoffman said in a readout of the call.
The US-Taliban peace deal, aimed at bringing lasting peace in war-torn Afghanistan and allowing American troops to return home from US’ longest war, was signed in Doha on February 29. But why would the Defence Secretary call Pakistan now? Perhaps the answer is not so simple after all given the relationship between Washington and Islamabad over the years.
The vital reason that Trump administration is changing its tune toward Pakistan is aimed at successful withdrawal of American troops from the war in Afghanistan at present. The US understands Pakistan to be a major player in the region’s peace and reconciliation process.
It was one of only three countries to recognize the Taliban after they took power in Afghanistan in 1996 and ended diplomatic ties soon after the 9/11 Attacks in 2001. At the same time, Pakistan has enough leverage over the Taliban to make them keep their end of the bargain in the peace agreement.
The US has lost some 2,200 soldiers over the past 18 years and spends $45 billion per annum on the Afghan war. Currently, the US needs Pakistan’s help to withdraw forces from Afghanistan. The US does not want the Taliban to continue fighting and allow Afghanistan as a base for militant attacks against them.
As a quid pro quo, Pakistan too has an enormous role to play, not only to help extricate America but also to end a four decades-long war, in which millions of Afghans lost their lives. On the other hand, Pakistan is a nuclear-armed state with a powerful army, a weak civilian government, and a feeble economy.
It needs to revamp relations with the US in hopes of regaining investment, trade, and aid (that, incidentally, Trump cut). Similarly, Pakistan also wants to resolve its political issues in the South Asia region with America’s cooperation. Over the past 15 years, Pakistan has received approximately $15 billion in aid.
If Pakistan makes headway in the peace efforts, the US-Pakistan relationship will improve immensely. Consequently, the Trump administration may restore more than $2 billion worth of suspended aid and security assistance. The trade and economic support to Pakistan would be an enormous advantage for a nation struggling with a serious economic crisis.
Breaking with Pakistan at this juncture is risky, chances are slim that doing so will change Pakistani behaviour. The far more likely outcome is that the stakes will be raised in Afghanistan.
Security gains in Afghanistan over the past year were made possible by generous American aid and intense engagement between the US and Pakistan. When the Obama administration decided on an exit strategy from Afghanistan, officials were assuming that those conditions would hold.
However, the US raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideout changed all that. Convinced of Pakistani duplicity, Washington kept the mission a secret, and that humiliated and angered the Pakistani military.
Relations then spiralled downward as Washington demanded more cooperation on fighting terrorism. The US Kabul embassy attack finally pushed the relationship over the edge.
Yet Pakistan’s cooperation is still critical to US objectives in Afghanistan, and a breach in US-Pakistan relations could put peace and security in Afghanistan beyond reach.
Pakistan sees Afghanistan through the prism of its regional rivalry with India; it fears that a strong and independent Afghanistan will take India’s side and would then lay claim to Pakistan’s Pashtun areas. For the past two decades, Islamabad has used the Taliban to avoid that outcome. Pakistan’s strategic calculus is too deeply entrenched and the stakes in Afghanistan are too high for Islamabad to change course over the threat of curtailed US aid.
Confrontation with Pakistan presents Washington with a dilemma that will make leaving Afghanistan harder. If the United States truly wishes to change Pakistani behaviour for the greater good of the region, then Washington has to be prepared to do what it takes to get that job done.
That includes potentially keeping large numbers of US troops in Afghanistan indefinitely to protect that country against the fallout from our policy and to convince Islamabad that it is futile for Pakistan to pursue its own goals in Afghanistan.
But if the US’s goal is to leave Afghanistan in the short term, then the prudent course of action is a return to stability in US-Pakistan relations. That would have to start with ending the recent public acrimony but also confronting head-on what Pakistan is after in Afghanistan.
The Trump administration is hoping that the combination of a strong Afghan military and a peace deal between the Afghanistan government and the Taliban will create the conditions for US troops to finally leave Afghanistan.
Pakistan, worrying about the sort of government that would next rule Afghanistan, is eager to be part of the planning for what is to follow the US exit. In particular, Islamabad wants control over when and how the Taliban will engage Kabul and Washington.
Afghans oppose this, and given Pakistan’s track record, Washington has not included Islamabad in decisions on the future of Afghanistan. But this is ultimately the price for Pakistan’s cooperation.
Still, even if the United States allows Pakistan to play a role in shaping a future Afghanistan, Washington should make any Pakistani role conditional on Islamabad taking concrete measures against groups such as the Haqqani network and the Taliban. American policy will be most effective if it flows from a clear understanding of their objectives and the resources they are willing to commit to their pursuit.
With Invaluable Inputs From Hizbullah Khan – Journal of International Affairs, Columbia University.