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Nov 13, 2017| Courtesy by : tribune.com.pk
The relationship between Islamabad and Washington has been rocky in the past months with Trump administration’s scathing review of Pakistan’s role in the South Asia political situation but the subsequent release of a Canadian-American couple through efforts of the Pakistan army which brought the two nations on the same-page.
Yet the mistrust persists, as pointed out by Michael Kugelman, the Deputy Director of Asia Programme and South Asia Senior Associate at Wilson Centre.
“There is a serious mistrust on official levels between Pakistan and the United States as both sides believe the other is always tricking the other or trying to undercut its interests,” he told The Express Tribune.
Attending the fourth round of Track II diplomatic talks between Pakistan and the US in Islamabad, Kugelman was perplexed by the dissonance coming from both sides on a variety of issues. “The Americans, for example, believe that Pakistan provides support to the militants that threaten US interests and lives in Afghanistan. While Pakistan believes that the US doesn’t care about Pakistani concerns—from Kashmir to the presence of anti-Pakistani terror groups in Afghanistan—and only calls on Pakistan to “do more” to help promote US interests.”
Kugelman further adds that ultimately, this is an indication of a dysfunctional relationship which each side wants to keep in place nonetheless. “And so because each side has committed to making things work, the persistent mistrust is magnified.”
But he was hopeful about the relationship’s chances of survival. “Let’s be clear” it is still on a collision course, but, he said, in the near future, the US will assess if Pakistan has done what the US asked it to do in its fight against terror, and if it has not, the US could well take more drastic policies out of its playbook, he said.
Elaborating on US options, he said they could range from an expanded drone war, sanctioning of the Pakistani military officials, or other possibilities. “If this happens, Pakistan could understandably retaliate by closing down NATO supply lines, for example, which would trigger a major bilateral crisis which could well serve as a deterrent to more drastic US measures.”
When asked if the US can afford such outright measures, he replied that there’s a very real possibility that they will see the drone war expanded geographically beyond the tribal areas in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, and for several reasons. Substantiating his prediction, he says diplomacy has taken a back seat, with the State Department cut and the former generals in the White House enjoying immense power—and, critically, the ear of the president.
To a question about possible US drone attacks in settled areas, he replied what Washington wants now is what it has wanted for more than 15 years – “to crack down on terrorists that target Americans in Afghanistan which means that the US wants Pakistan to shut down any safe haven in Pakistan used by the Haqqani Network and other groups. Washington also wants Pakistan to apprehend top leaders from some of these groups, and particularly the Afghan militants.
About the reaction of the Pakistani military, he says it goes without saying it is not impressed with these demands. The official refrain in Pakistan, he explains, is that the country is already going after all manner of terrorists. “In reality, the story is quite different at any rate, Pakistan, like any nation-state, has national interests, and these interests dictate a need to maintain ties to militant organisations that can serve a useful purpose for Pakistan in both Afghanistan and India.”
Kugelman also anticipates that it will take a whole lot, and perhaps more than mere American pressure, to get Pakistan to undertake a paradigm shift in its counterterrorism policy “because such a paradigm shift would endanger critical Pakistani national interests that have been entrenched for years.”
But he is certain that the US-Pakistan relationship with survive, “it won’t wither away,” he said.
Deliberating on the address by Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif during one of the sessions of the dialogue where he talked about Indian influence in Afghanistan, Kugelman said there is very little common ground in terms of how both sides view India. Washington struggles to conceive of India playing any type of nefarious role in Pakistan, while Islamabad struggles to conceive of India doing anything benign in Pakistan, he adds.
“So when it comes to this notion that India is destabilising Pakistan, there are few takers in Washington,” he comments, adding he hasn’t come across one US official who believes the allegations that Pakistan levels about India. “Any evidence put forward by Pakistan to substantiate these claims is vague and flimsy.”
“The idea that Indian intelligence is providing support to the Pakistani Taliban, Baloch separatists, nefarious actors in Karachi – all of this does little more than elicit eye rolls in Washington,” he adds.
As a frequent visitor, Kugelman reminisced the last time he was here the country was immersed with the Panama verdict and this time around the city is engulfed in smog. Describing his short trip to North Waziristan as ‘memorable’, he said he had anticipated it to be a “tightly scripted, closely choreographed visit to a section of Miran Shah that had received an infusion of military-led development schemes, from a new hospital and sports grounds to rebuilt markets.”
“I knew what I was getting myself into – the military wanted to demonstrate all the good things happening in North Waziristan.”
Yet he could not stop himself from being impressed. “One of the most dangerous war zones in the world, a no-go area for so long, has become a new locus for development activity.” Recognising that it was just one side of the picture and there were many areas that “remain a complete mess”. “Let’s face it, I doubt myself or others in my American delegation would have been allowed to travel to North Waziristan several years ago for safety reasons.”
“But now it’s a less terror-saturated place-even though the threat still very much remains, and could well return with a vengeance down the road. After all, the hardline ideologies that drive extremism and terror still remain entrenched across Pakistan,” he warned.
When asked on the version of democracy in Pakistan, Kugelman said “Democracy is in a fragile state in Pakistan. So long as the Army continues to pull the strings from behind the scenes, as it is most certainly doing now, you can’t talk of Pakistan as a true democracy.”
But he was certain the military was not interested in a coup. “It’s quite happy pulling the strings from behind the scenes, as this allows it to enjoy tremendous clout without being directly saddled with power and the very intimidating public policy challenges–from water and energy shortages and public health crises–that come with it.”
“My sense is the military is hoping for there to be elections as soon as possible, in the hopes that the next prime minister will be more pliable, or at least less,” he added.
“The civilian government has been cut down to the smallest of sizes over the last few years, and the ouster of Nawaz Sharif–which may well have been aided in some way by the security establishment–has only allowed the military to strengthen its muscles further. What better example than when the Rangers prevented Pakistan’s interior minister from entering a courthouse where Nawaz Sharif was participating in a hearing.”
Reflecting on Trump administration’s Afghan Policy, Kugelman predicts the situation to worsen. “The Taliban is too strong and too successful on the battlefield to have any incentive to stop fighting,” he said. “What the Trump administration hopes is that it can empower US troops with more flexibility to take on the Taliban, in the hopes that US firepower can inflict more damage on the Taliban and compel a weakened insurgency to finally come to the peace table.”
“This plan may look good on paper, but it may amount to a fool’s errand. Can we really expect the US to weaken the Taliban with 13,000 troops when it couldn’t do so with 100,000 troops several years back? Also, would a weakened Taliban agree to talks, or merely become emboldened and vow to continue the fight?”
“The current state of play in Afghanistan is quite stark: The situation on the ground is spinning out of control, Afghanistan is rapidly destabilizing, and even the least bad option-reconciliation-is dead in the water for now.”
To a question on the US policy line on CPEC and a recent statement from US Defence Secretary James Mattis, he replied the US government has not formally come out to condemn CPEC, despite Mattis’s comments. Mattis may have been speaking on his own, but this is a White House that is rather undisciplined and disorganised, he says, adding, “But I do think that the Trump White House’s strategic views on South Asia suggest that eventually, the administration may well come out with a position that is formally opposed to CPEC.”
He noted that the Trump administration is an unabashed supporter of a deeper US-India partnership. “What better way to garner more Indian trust than to formally position itself in the anti-CPEC camp?” He said.