President Trump’s desire to withdraw all US forces from Afghanistan could not have been expressed at a more appropriate juncture for Pakistan.
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan is now in the United States to meet President Donald Trump on July 22, and perhaps cash in on the visible resurgence in US-Pakistan relations after the serious American efforts to withdraw from Afghanistan began a year ago. A review of the hot and cold US-Pakistan relationship would reveal the direction this effort is likely to flow in — north or south. Over five decades ago, during the Cold War, Pakistan had consciously entered into strategic alliances like Seato and Cento with the US, to enhance its relations with a superpower and draw its support towards the overall security needs that it perceived. Its high value as a US ally really emerged in 1969 when US President Richard M. Nixon decided to engage with China to tilt the international balance against its arch-foe, the Soviet Union. Pakistan’s strongly emerging relationship with China, designed on the back of its failing relationship with India, gave it the fillip to progressively maintain close relations with both, the US and China. The events at the end of 1979, the Iranian revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, both gave Pakistan the opportunity to cozy up with the US and Saudi Arabia in a commonality of strategic interests. Pakistan became the frontline state receiving military wherewithal from the US and finances from the Saudis to keep the Soviets at bay and hem Shia Iran from the east respectively. As the Cold War ended, Pakistan’s importance dwindled to an extent, although the handling of Afghanistan in the post-conflict period should have been an even more important phase. However, by then Pakistan had entered the game of radical extremism. Consciously, Pakistan promoted a radical brand of Islam to serve its strategic purpose to allow the pan-Islamic configuration from the conflict in Afghanistan to travel to Jammu and Kashmir, and also assist it securing flagship status in the Islamic world. It wasn’t in convergence with US interests any longer, which was inclined towards neutralising the rising tide of Islamism, as seen in the war in Bosnia and the turbulence in the South Asia region, generated by Pakistan. The clash of US interests with those of Pakistan also arose from the latter’s nuclearisation and emerging potential of being a state which could melt down with its military nuclear assets falling into the hands of radicals; the proverbial worst-case scenario imagined by the US. Pakistan had to be treated gingerly thereafter. Then 9/11 brought Pakistan back into the reckoning as a frontline state. The US needed it like never before; a war in Afghanistan could not be fought from air heads in Tajikistan or Turkmenistan; the logistics could only travel via Karachi since Iran was a pariah. Since then, Pakistan’s strategic importance for the US has remained a grudging phenomenon. That has given Pakistan a certain leeway to play its cards and continue building its capability in the conduct of irregular wars which it has used as a weapon of its self-empowerment. This is particularly after the blowback which hit it after 2007, and which it claims it has fully rolled back after Operation Zarb-e-Azb in 2017.
Pakistan’s strategic orientation and delusionary self-interests have brought it to the brink of economic disaster. It had to recently enter into an IMF bailout process for the 13th time since the 1980s. The $6 billion loan has come with conditionalities, but is a landmark, which once crossed, allows the flow of funds from other nations due to the reposed IMF confidence grudgingly supported by the US. It is also under investigation by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) for insufficient action against terror financing networks; the final report is due in October 2019. There was a while when Pakistan started to consider its relationship with China as a full alternative to its relationship with the US, and not an adjunct. However, as the economic situation worsened, the realisation dawned that without the US there was little scope for any bailouts, and China’s capability in financial support and willingness to part with money was highly suspect. President Trump’s desire to withdraw all US forces from Afghanistan could not have been expressed at a more appropriate juncture as far as Pakistan is concerned. It is the natural frontline state to mastermind the post-US withdrawal situation and facilitate the arrival at a desired situation through assistance for talks between the US and the Taliban.
Prime Minister Imran Khan has arrived at Washington with this background. He certainly knows that Pakistan holds a couple of cards related to US interests in Afghanistan. However, the situation for Pakistan is much larger than just Afghanistan. It needs US investment for its starving economy and assurance of continued support in that direction. To do the convincing, Pakistan Army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa is accompanying the Prime Minister. His presence is apparently to convince US officials that the powerful Pakistan Army will play ball on US interests. Last year, Mr Trump cut off much security assistance to Pakistan, accusing it of offering nothing but “lies and deceit” while giving safe haven to terrorists, a charge angrily rejected by Islamabad. Perhaps Mr Trump was briefed later about Pakistan’s strategic importance for the US to achieve various security ends. He has been more conciliatory since then. Imran Khan has prepared for this visit; attempted some indicators to the US that Pakistan is serious about improving the security environment of South Asia. The situation in Kashmir has been possibly calibrated to a low. The airspace over Pakistan has been opened for commercial airlines flying to and from India. Hafiz Saeed, the Pakistani terrorist leader with a $10 million US bounty on his head, has been arrested for the umpteenth time and incarcerated in jail.
Mr Trump and his advisers need to look at the larger picture. The potential of Pakistan being a menace for the international community, with its extremely weak social parameters, must be realised. Mixed with the after-effects of a potential full US pullout from Afghanistan, the Af-Pak region could deteriorate to conditions of such instability and violence that the jihad factories would all re-emerge and create havoc not just locally, but also internationally. The US secretary of state was in New Delhi recently, possibly for consultations on exactly these issues. However, the US has somehow always had greater faith in the Pakistan Army than in any civilian dispensation. It is doubtful it will bat for greater dilution of control of the Pakistan Army on the various institutions; at least definitely not for now. Mr Trump wants some symbolic visibility immediately to communicate the seriousness of getting troops out of Afghanistan well before the election campaign next year.
All the above indicates that the US, while comprehending the threats, may not go for long-term stabilisation but rather for short-term electoral gains for the Trump administration. The opportunity it is getting of putting Pakistan on the mat and extracting from it enough to pull it back from the wayward ways it has followed is likely to be given a go-by. For the nth time the US-Pakistan strategic relationship may see a revival, the effects of which will not be in the interests of India and the rest of the world.