If Washington and Islamabad are to collaborate in the fight against terrorism, diplomatic solutions will be needed to reduce current tensions, writes Rahimullah Yusufzai
Efforts are underway to repair the damaged relationship between Pakistan and the United States,following President Trump’s allegations that Pakistan is harbouring terrorists who were attacking soldiers from the US-led Nato and Afghan forces in neighbouring Afghanistan.
Leading these efforts isthe US military commanderstruggling to contain the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan. General Joseph Votel, the US Central Command commander, made a phone call to Pakistan Army chief General QamarJavedBajwain a bid to prevent further deterioration in the relationship. His words were friendly and his attitude towards Pakistanpositive, unlike the bitter tone of President Trump when he humiliatedIslamabad in his August 21 speech unveiling the new US policy for Afghanistan and South Asia, and subsequently on January 1 this year, when hereferred in a tweet to Pakistan’s‘lies and deceit’ over its alleged support to terrorists.
Votelassured General Bajwa that the US will not take any unilateral action inside Pakistan, even though this possibility had been mentioned earlier by certain American officials. He also said that the present difficulty in America’s relations with Pakistan was temporary and he hoped they would work together in fighting terrorism.
Pakistani officials have seized this opportunity to claim that it is due to their tough stand that the US is now having second thoughts about arm-twistingits erstwhile ally. Instead, the discussion isnow about sorting out differences and restoring cooperation in the war against terrorism.
Earlier, Pakistan had tried to match the US officials’ tough rhetoric by taking an unusually hard line when responding to allegations against it. In its strongest response to date to the US amid rising tensions, Pakistan cautioned the Americans against taking any unilateral action in Pakistani territory. The warning was issued by Pakistan military spokesman Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor, who rejected the US allegation that Islamabad wasn’t doing enough to fight armed militant groups operating from Pakistan’s soil and was waging war against the US and its allies in Afghanistan. In categorical terms, he reacted to repeated US demands for Pakistan to do more by arguing that it had done enough and cannot do more for anyone.
This echoed the recent statement of General Bajwa, who said it was now other countries’ turn to do more as Pakistan had played enough of a role in the war against terrorism. He reminded the US that it could not have defeated al-Qaeda in the region without Pakistan’s support.
This warning by the military spokesman came after media reports quoted Pakistan Air Force chief Air Marshal SohailAman as saying that their jet-fighters would shoot down anydrone intruding into Pakistani territory if ordered by the government. This was a warning to the US to stop carrying out drone strikes in Pakistan, though the threat hasnot been implemented as three attacks by US drones have been carried out since then in Pakistan’s tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. It is obvious Islamabad would not take such an extreme step because shooting down a drone could provoke the US to take further punitive measures against Pakistan – possibly including more airstrikes using its formidable air power – and declaring it a rogue state sponsoring terrorism.
Another extreme step that Pakistan could take would be to block the supply line for US-led Nato forces in Afghanistan. The Pakistan overland route is the shortest and cheapest and such a step would pose a big challenge to sustaining the US-Pakistan relationship.
Both the US and Pakistan have made moves to record their anger against each other. The US has suspended military assistance worth about $2 billion to Pakistan and is refusing to pay it the Coalition Support Fund monies it has been giving regularly as reimbursement for money spent by Islamabad on military operations against local and foreign militants in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) in support of the US-led war against terrorism. There has also been a slight increase in the number of US drone strikes inside Pakistan since last year when Trump, after becoming president, took a tougher position against Pakistan. There is concern in Pakistan that the US drones could start hitting targets outside Fata. Almost all the more than 420 drone attacks inside Pakistan since June 2004 have taken place in Fata, with just two in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and one in Balochistan. For Pakistan, any drone strikes outside Fata in its four mainland provinces constitutes a ‘red line’ but it is doubtful if the US will agree not to cross it.
Through a unanimous resolution,Pakistan’s Parliament maintained that there were no safe havens for the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network in Pakistan. Rejecting Trump’s claim that billions of dollars had been paid to Pakistan, it reminded him that their country had suffered losses of $123 billion in the war against terrorism while 70,000 of its citizens were killed. The resolution asked the government to postpone all high-level visits between Pakistan and the US. It also demanded the elimination of safe havens for Pakistani militants in Afghanistan, setting up a timetable for the repatriation of Afghan refugees and initiating steps to stop the influence of India in Afghanistan as the Indians were using Afghan soil to destabilise Pakistan.
Politicians from both the ruling parties and the opposition spoke with one voice while criticising Trump’s remarks against Pakistan. They said the US had failed to acknowledge Pakistan’s sacrifices in the war against terrorism and tried to bring Islamabad under pressure by asking India to get involved in Afghanistan in a bigger way. The Pakistani politicians maintained that the US was trying to find a scapegoat for its failure in Afghanistan. Pakistan suspended talks and high-level bilateral visits with the US, though this was only for a brief period. As if taunting the Trump administration, Prime Minister ShahidKhaqanAbbasi and Foreign Minister Khwaja Mohammad Asif repeatedly said the US had lost the war in Afghanistan and its insistence on a military solution after 16 years of fighting amounted to reinforcing that failure.
Pakistan also took certain measures to reassure the US and prove that it was serious in the fight against terrorism. On October 12 last year, its troops recovered a Western couple, Canadian Joshua Boyle and his American wife Caitlan Coleman, and their three young children from the Kurram tribal region bordering Afghanistan on the basis of intelligence provided by the US the previous day. The Pakistan Army claimed the hostages were being shifted from Afghanistan to Pakistan. The couple was kidnapped in 2012 by fighters of the Haqqani network and initially kept hostage in Afghanistan. This action won rare praise from President Trump and enabled Pakistan to advocate further intelligence cooperation to achieve similar results.
The Pakistan government also persuaded 1,800 religious scholars to issue a fatwa, or Islamic decree, condemning suicide bombing and emphasising that only the state, not an individual or group, can declare jihad (holy war). The decree labelled suicide bombers as terrorists and their facilitators as traitors. Though the decree was meant for Pakistan, there was a strong feeling that it would also indirectly benefit Afghanistan as Pakistani militants waging war there would henceforth have doubts whether they were doing the right things. The Afghan Taliban, too, could face challenges in their recruitment drives as many of their fighters have studied at Pakistani religious seminaries where the teachers are almost all Pakistanis.
Pakistan also expedited efforts to convince the Taliban to hold peace talks with the Afghan government. Its persuasion prompted the Taliban leadership to send a delegation from the Taliban’s Political Commission in Qatar to Islamabad to hold talks with Pakistani security officials on prospects for reviving the stalemated peace process. Although the Taliban continued to refuse talks with the Afghan government and instead expressed willingness to talk to the US, as they argued it was the real power in Afghanistan, Pakistan hasnot given up.
This is not the first time that relations between Pakistan and the US have turned sour.The two had disagreements even when they were close allies during the Cold War and were together in military pacts such as SEATO and CENTO directed at the erstwhile Soviet Union. On certain occasions in the past, the US stopped its assistance and imposed sanctions on Pakistan, but their relationship survived the ups and downs and benefited both. They somehow needed each other and couldnot afford to remain on unfriendly terms.
The foremost issue that has caused this latest rupture in Pakistan-US relations concerns the Haqqani network. The US is presently making another major effort to defeat the network and also the larger Afghan Taliban movement. It believes Pakistan can help it in achieving this goal, but the way Trump is humiliating America’s former ally is unlikely to bear fruit.