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Detente, US-Pakistan style

 

President Obama's new-found bonhomie with Nawaz Sharif has alarmed New Delhi. but Will this rapprochement be enough to save Kabul?
SAURABH SHAHI | Issue Dated: November 17, 2013, New Delhi
Tags : Pakistan | Drone | Nawaz Sharif | America | US | CIA | Islamadabad |
 

Consequently, Pentagon reached out to its Trojan horse inside Pakistani administration, the then Islamabad's Ambassador to Washington DC, Hussain Haqqani, and asked him to bail it out of trouble. It was after all Haqqani who had cleared the visas for CIA operatives without going in for the mandatory background check right under the noses of other Pakistani diplomats.

 


While Haqqani entertained the request and set the ball in motion, he had a piece of advice for the Pentagon as well. “If you're going to send a Jason Bourne character to Pakistan, he should have the skills of a Jason Bourne to get away,” he had said in an acerbic tone prompted more out of the sudden discomfort he was being put into rather than his act of betrayal against his country.


That was almost three years ago.


When Nawaz Sharif made his maiden trip to the US last month following his election as the Prime Minister of Pakistan, the incident and the acrimony that had followed was still casting its long shadow on the US-Pakistan relationship. However, prompted by the demands of realpolitik and assisted by the reasonable passage of time, the intensity had somewhat lessened. It was a great opportunity for both presidents, Nawaz Sharif and Barack Obama to show their political acumen and show they did.

 


The joint statement issued in Washington after the dialogue came as a stunner for analysts and journalists in both the capital cities – in addition to some startled neighbours.


It was proof that after a year of lull, Washington and Islamabad were willing to work together. The joint statement not just praised Pakistan’s role in the Global War Against Terror but also singled out its armed forces for special praise. “Prime Minister Sharif conveyed appreciation for US security assistance in support of Pakistan’s counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency, counter-narcotics, and maritime security operations and expressed hope of broadening bilateral defense cooperation in areas that serve mutual interest.  To bolster these efforts, the United States plans to continue providing assistance and support, including training and equipment to Pakistan’s military and security services. The two leaders decided to strengthen their cooperation, including regional maritime security.  President Obama noted Pakistan’s positive efforts to counter improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and both leaders resolved to continue working together to disrupt the threat posed by these devices.  President Obama commended the resolve of the government and people of Pakistan, armed forces, and law enforcement agencies to defeat terrorists and praised Pakistan for its military campaign.  They shared their mutual conviction that a stable and peaceful Pakistan-Afghanistan border was important for the success of counter-terrorism, counterinsurgency, and counter-IED efforts, and they underscored the critical significance of effective border coordination mechanisms between Pakistan and Afghanistan in achieving these objectives,” the joint statement read.


It was a bolt from the blue for New Delhi where Pakistan watchers were quite literally tearing their hair apart. The joint statement was in sharp contrast to the stoic silence that President Obama maintained as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh lashed out at Pakistan calling it “epicentre” of global terrorism just a few days ago. If that was not enough, it  also obliquely mentioned the Kashmir issue by maintaining that US was in “support of peaceful resolution of all outstanding issues.”


So what changed so dramatically? According to diplomats, the US gives no particular credence to the civilian rulers of its allies unless they toe the line. The Angela Merkel saga is a case in point. Therefore it will be a naive to think that the election of Nawaz Sharif had anything to do with this turnaround.

 


It is also well known that while the US has shown stubbornness in admitting faults publicly, it has shown surprising flexibility in doing so in private when it comes to national interest.  But that explains only part of what might have transpired.


Something did happen inside State Department that brought such a tectonic shift. Noted international affairs analyst and former Indian Ambassador M Bhadrakumar, has an answer. “The US desperately needs Pakistan in its traditional role as its regional partner if it is to pursue the new Cold War effectively — that is, to establish the nine military bases in Afghanistan as part of its ‘re balance’ in southwest Asia, and true to style Sharif came prepared with his wish list. Without doubt, Obama has gone out of the way to court Pakistan,” he explains.     

   
Afghanistan remains the cornerstone of Pakistan-US cooperation and after months of blowing hot and cold, the US realised that any face-saving withdrawal from Afghanistan and small level long term presence there needs Pakistan’s blessing. Some years ago when the US tried to bypass Pakistan by reaching out to a faction of Taliban directly, Pakistan arrested Mullah Baradar, the head of that faction and sent a very clear signal that while it might not have the influence to control the entire Taliban in Afghanistan, it does have the wherewithal to sabotage anything counter to its national interest. The US took a long time to get that message.


The visit to Washington DC was preceded by the removal of moratorium on the delivery of aid money to Pakistan. The aid was frozen for some years now and Pakistan was feeling the pinch. However it did not feel that pinch enough to seek rapprochement with the US. Both former President Asif Ali Zardari as well as General Kayani knew that if they manage to resist the temptation for a couple of years, the US will lose its trump card and will seek rapprochement: that is what happened.


Pakistan made it very clear to the US that the aid amount that it gives to Pakistan is a quid pro quo for all the help Islamabad gives it in the Global War on Terror and thus is a ‘payment’ for services rendered.


Due to US backing, a $6.7 billion loan was approved in mid-September to be paid over three years to Pakistan by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). It also agreed to release $322 million in Coalition Support Funds to Islamabad and announced plans to release a little less than $1.6 billion to Pakistan by March next year.


“The Obama administration’s logistical dependence on Pakistan has led it to overlook its intelligence finding about Islamabad’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate’s ties with the Haqqani network, based in North Waziristan Tribal Agency, which has attacked Western and Indian targets in Afghanistan,” says noted analyst and author Dilip Hiro.

 

 


On the other hand, in spite of taking a low view of Pakistan, President Karzai realised that Taliban are a tough nut to crack and he needs Islamabad to get the ball rolling there. So when Karzai visited Islamabad last month, he covered some of the lost ground and so did the Afghan High Peace Council.


Insider sources in Pakistan say that the discussion was full and frank. The Afghan side categorically asked Pakistan as to what its intentions were following the withdrawal of coalition troops from Afghanistan. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif categorically told the delegation that Pakistan favoured an “Afghan-lead, Afghan-owned” peace settlement.


This was seen as a clear departure from the previously held position of “Pashtun-lead” settlement. This does not mean that Pakistan is undercutting the Pashtun aspect but it reveals wider acceptability among the Pakistani civilian as well as its security establishment towards a solution that is mutually acceptable and not hoisted upon non-Pashtun Afghans.


The major push in the dialogue came from the members of Afghanistan High Peace Council. Over a dozen member of the Peace Council had accompanied President Karzai in these talks including its powerful members Salaudin Rabbani and Shafiullah Nooristani. The idea behind a strong contingent of Peace Council members was to convince Pakistan to be part of the settlement process. Unlike in the past where a large section of the Peace council members, mostly non-Pashtuns, were not in favour of involving their neighbour across the Durand Line, the mood and circumstances of the negotiations were different this time. Members now believe that all past attempts of reaching out to a section of Taliban by bypassing Pakistan was a mistake and virtually unattainable.


Therefore, there is a general perception in the High Peace Council now that Pakistan should be central to any peace negotiation. In its dialogue with the Pakistani side, the High Peace Council requested Islamabad to use its influence among the Taliban to restart the peace and negotiation process in a mutually agreed framework. Pakistan on its part has promised that it will try to bring back Taliban to the peace negotiation table.


The final push however came in Washington when President Obama backed demands made by the Peace Council, and Nawaz Sharif in a show of maturity and cunning obliged, sending a signal to the world that it is the US and Afghanistan who want its involvement.


“Sharif has made an open call to the Taliban to enter into talks with the Afghan government. It stands to reason that Pakistan is getting the Taliban leadership to begin direct talks with Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, a body that the militants so far adamantly refused to recognise as their interlocutor. This is a major step forward and it is in line with Obama’s demarche to Sharif. Reports from London say that a delegation of the High Peace Council will travel to Pakistan shortly to meet Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar who used to be deputy to Mullah Omar. All indications are that Baradar is in touch with the Taliban leadership and will act as go-between,” points out Ambassador M Bhadrakumar.


In the last few months, because of its release of Akhtar Muhammad Mansur and Nuroodeen Toorab, Pakistan has started increasing its influence in that faction of Taliban that was earlier willing to bypass it in its reconciliation with US and Afghanistan government. Of the three bigger factions of Taliban, Haqqani network is under its influence completely, and so is the Gulbudin Hekmatyar’s faction. It was only the faction lead by Mullah Baradar that had defied it.


With the arrest of Baradar and killing of some of his aides, that faction’s demography has also been altered. And with Akhtar Muhammad Mansur and Nuroodeen Toorab in helm of affairs now, Pakistan has restored its influence on that faction too.


The killing of TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud does appear to some as a temporary blow to this new found bonhomie between the US, Afghanistan and Pakistan. President Karzai has gone on record to allege that it was sabotage. But these are calculated comments made for public consumption. The killing of Mehsud is a signal the military-intelligence cooperation between US and Pakistan has started running in full swing again. Mehsud was a big thorn for Pakistani establishment in its effort to bring in TTP for talks. Now that has been removed. The first reaction of TTP will be revenge. However, when dust settles, the chances of the success of peace talks between it and Pakistan will grow.


It was not for nothing that Pakistan released a report claiming that as less as 67 civilians died in Drone attacks in all these years. The figures gave a great boost to the campaign’s credence.


The ball has started to roll in Af-Pak and the US is determined to look victorious when it leaves the scene (albeit partially) next year. Years ago, Henry Kissinger famously asked the military to “declare victory and run” from Vietnam. The US is assuring that the humiliation does not get repeated. It is determined to make that “run” look like a brisk walk and save some face. Islamabad sees itself back in the chess game after narrowly missing the checkmate. 

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017