Pakistan-US relations continue to face one challenge after another. The latest episode that further vitiated the relationship was the result of the car accident by a US diplomat that resulted in the death of a student and serious injuries to his motorcycle companion. While this happened to be the trigger and Islamabad authorities tried to comply with legal requirements, Washington responded hard, flexing its muscles by placing restrictions on movement of Pakistani diplomats.
Islamabad retaliated by introducing similar limits on US diplomats. With elections only a few months away, the government could not have given an impression of being weak, neither was the army leadership prepared to yield any concessions.
Fortunately, the matter was resolved in conformity with the legal obligations of justice and protocols governing diplomats. The incident, however, reflects the fragility of the relationship despite the fact both countries share several critical areas of common interest.
Incidentally, the father of the deceased, a retired lance corporal, was invited in a television programme. One was impressed by his dignified composure despite the huge trauma of losing his son. He was very bitter that neither the administration nor the politicians cared to take any interest in the matter. He also shared with us his regret that if his son, who was profusely bleeding internally, was immediately shifted to a hospital his chances of survival would have been far greater. On the contrary, the Islamabad police lost nearly 20 minutes in conversation with the defence attache.
Even looking beyond the recent tragic episode future prospects of Pakistan-US relations does not look good. Despite Pakistan’s earnest efforts in ensuring that several important Taliban and Haqqani network leadership do not take refuge in the tribal areas Washington remains dissatisfied. The reality is that until the Afghan situation stabilises US pressure on Pakistan is unlikely to lessen. And the prospects of it happening soon are remote.
The Taliban leadership is only interested in talking to Americans who, from their perspective, are sponsors of the conflict. The presence of foreign troops is central to their cause and the major hurdle to settlement. If the Taliban leadership departs from this aim they would be going against their basic narrative and mission that has kept all factions united. If the leadership would engage with the present Afghan government, the Taliban movement in all likelihood would split.
As is well known that the Taliban would never admit openly there is a division and difference in approach and policy between the Taliban commanders in the field and those leaders located abroad or in safe locations in the country. There is however unanimity of views between various factions on talking to the Americans. From their viewpoint it is the presence of Americans that they have been fighting as a matter of principle. And this narrative has been very effective in keeping their various factions united. In any case fragmentation of the Taliban movement would not be in the interest of any party, including the Afghan government and the Americans. It would throw Afghanistan into further division and chaos. The Taliban leadership insists that there has to be a timeline for US withdrawal. If Washington and Kabul are serious about a negotiated settlement then a certain plan could be worked out. An agreement on the lines of the Geneva Accords could be one option. On the contrary, if Washington believes it can force its will on Afghanistan it will not work. Pakistan from the very beginning has rightly advocated for a political solution to the Afghan quagmire.
The worsening of the US-Iranian relations also places Pakistan in a difficult situation. Deep historical and religious ties, a large Shia community, a long shared border and growing economic linkages prevent Pakistan from taking an adversarial position against Iran merely to satisfy US dictates. President Trump’s decision of withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and re-imposing sanctions on Iran has far-reaching implications. The other five JCPOA signatories — France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China — while opposing the US decision are committed to honour the agreement. How long the European states would be able to resist US pressure only the next few months would indicate.
For Pakistan it would be a tightrope walk maintaining good relations with Iran while steering through US sensitivities. Another complicating factor is Saudi Arabia with whom Pakistan enjoys a strategic relationship and has close religious bonds fully backs US decision against Iran. Islamabad realises leaning heavily on any side will provide an ideal opening for sectarian fault lines to be exploited.
Experts maintain that US sanctions on Iran could divert some investment and trade from Chabahar port to Karachi and Gwadar. With relative peace in Fata and especially North Waziristan, Pakistan-Afghanistan land route could give an impetus to cross-border trade. The other possibility is that Iran to counter US sanctions could support the Taliban making any future political settlement more difficult. All this shows complexity of the regional situation.
Moreover, the US has also not fully reconciled to CPEC or to our strong and expanding strategic relationship with China. Initially, it was openly opposed to it. Whereas it has muted its outward hostility but is skeptical of China’s role in the region. US President Donald Trump in his recent national security strategy, labelled China and Russia the primary threats to US economic dominance. Interestingly, he also remarked that China and Russia are rival powers but “we must attempt to build a great partnership with them”.
Pakistan is making serious effort at building relations with Russia and there have been significant developments in that direction.
If we look at Pakistan’s policy towards all its major neighbours — India, Afghanistan, Iran, Russia and China it is generally at odds with the US. Pakistan-India relations are frozen, trust between Afghanistan and Pakistan is lacking, but for the US, India is its principal strategic partner. China and Russia are its strategic rivals. China is Pakistan’s strongest strategic ally. Despite these major differences there are vital areas of common interest that demand cooperation and mutual respect.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 16th, 2018.