More stick than carrot
A war of words has broken out between our foreign office and US Vice President Mike Spence. The latter was on an unannounced visit to US troops in Afghanistan at Bagram base, and used the opportunity to meet Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah in Kabul. What got the foreign office’s goat were remarks Pence made while addressing US troops at Bagram. He said Pakistan had been put on notice that the days of harbouring terrorists on its soil that attack US, Afghan and allied troops inside Afghanistan are over. This line of thinking stems from the recent foreign policy announced by US President Donald Trump, in which Washington indicated it would work with Islamabad on areas of convergence but was prepared to act unilaterally on areas of divergence. The main bone of contention, not surprisingly, is Washington’s perception that its failure to win the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, or even to persuade them to seek a negotiated end to the conflict owes a great deal to the safe havens they enjoy inside Pakistan, and to which they retreat when under pressure or to rest, regroup, and fight on. Our foreign office’s response attempted to turn the ‘notice’ mentioned by Pence towards the manifest failure of Ghani’s national unity government to scotch widespread corruption, introduce better governance, eliminate poppy production that reportedly finances the Taliban’s operations, and even manage parliamentary elections. That argument notwithstanding, Pence did hold out a measly ‘carrot’ by saying Pakistan had much to gain from partnering the US and much to lose by continuing to harbour terrorists. However, whatever Pence meant by ‘gains’, the ISPR chief Major General Asif Ghafoor responded to Pence by asserting that his words were likely to negatively impact the existing coordination and cooperation between the two countries. On the implied withholding of aid, and in the case of the Coalition Support Funds reimbursement of Pakistan’s expenditures on the war on terror that have had restrictions placed on their release by Congress explicit withholding, the ISPR chief said Pakistan was not fighting for money but trust and respect. Similar sentiments were voiced by Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua in a briefing to a Senate committee in which she said Pence’s remarks were at odds with the tone and tenor of the discussions ongoing with the US. Pakistan argues in addition that it has eliminated terrorist bases from its soil indiscriminately and is in turn threatened by the safe havens enjoyed by the Pakistani Taliban in the ungoverned spaces on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. This was underlined by an attack on our troops from across the border in the Mohmand Agency on the very day Pence spoke in Kabul, an attack that killed three soldiers.
However, two points need to be made clear. First and foremost, Pence’s remarks were obviously part of his effort to boost the morale of US troops by emphasising that the Trump administration was in Afghanistan for the long haul and until the Afghan Taliban were persuaded they could not win on the battlefield. Perhaps Pakistan should have resisted the temptation to react publicly to Pence’s comments, relying, as it has often done in the past, on conducting diplomacy discreetly through official channels rather than in the public space. Two, the two sides appear publicly to be talking past each other. Washington insists the safe havens on Pakistani soil exist, Islamabad in turn insists they have been eliminated. This gulf has created a vast amount of (mutual) suspicion between the two ‘allies’, particularly since Pakistan feels aggrieved by the US’s open expression of its intent to rely strategically and in Afghanistan on rival India. Washington could not have been pleased with, and according to our UN Ambassador Dr Maleeha Lodhi, threatened Pakistan not to co-sponsor the UN General Assembly resolution against Trump’s declaration of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. While Islamabad’s calculations may include the fact that it has Washington over a barrel in terms of the latter’s reliance on Pakistan for the logistical needs of its presence in Afghanistan, this should not be stretched to the point where Trump’s penchant for retaliation comes into play and Washington falls back on attacks and even bin Laden-type raids inside Pakistan while using its clout with the international financial institutions to put the squeeze on Pakistan. This would cause huge problems in Pakistan obtaining the Rs 24 billion it needs to meet its external deficit next year (estimated by some independent economists to be closer to Rs 32 billion). Pakistan and the US need to put their heads together to once again jump start efforts to bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table (a stop-start process that is currently conspicuous by its absence) and deal with both Pakistan’s and Afghanistan’s terrorism problem through cooperation, not in hostility and laced with mutual recriminations.