The US has apparently made an adjustment in its policy towards South Asia in general and Pakistan in particular. This is epitomised by President Trump’s U-Turn in re-engaging Pakistan much against the run of persistently worsening US-Pakistan relations. Through his missive to PM Imran Khan and his emissary Zalmay Khalilzad, President Trump has made common cause with Pakistan in the War on Terror (WOT), acknowledged its cardinal role in defeating terrorism and reiterated that peace, political reconciliation and a settlement of the Afghan issue comprise “his most important regional priority”. He has realised now that the one and only road to peace in Afghanistan goes through Pakistan!

He desires that Pakistan help the US achieve its strategic objectives in Afghanistan by bringing the Afghan Taliban/Haqqani Network (TTA/HN) to the negotiating table. To that end Pakistan and the US are ostensibly going to work as a team, henceforth!

What has caused this sudden change in strategy? President Trump’s hubris knew no bounds when he trashed and ruthlessly insulted Pakistan through his caustic and abrasive tweets, acerbic statements and interviews. He also initiated extremely coercive policies towards Pakistan, withheld the due Coalition Support Funds (CSF - about US $ 9 Billion), enforced crippling military and economic sanctions and threatened to block loans from the IMF and other IFIs to it.

In the process, the US lost critical leverage with Pakistan. This is some come down for the US President!

Pakistan must analyse this change in US strategy very minutely. Is it a revitalisation of the customary “one-time transactional engagement” of Pakistan with US strategic objectives circumscribed in time and space within Afghanistan? Or is it a genuine paradigm shift leading on to a meaningful, broad based, multidimensional strategic partnership for the long term? Could it have deeper objectives of keeping Pakistan from moving irretrievably into the Chinese embrace? Or is it a deep indirect approach to gain access to the CPEC-BRI projects inside Pakistan to somehow delay, disrupt, destroy and/or scuttle them fatally? Pakistan will need to strike a very delicate and critical balance in its relations with both the US and China, without prejudice to its vital national interests.

The US’ policy to engage the TTA/HN through Pakistan lacks clarity in terms of a well- defined desired end state and the methodologies, the ways and means needed to get there. It is silent on the shape and form of the political setup to be sought in Afghanistan, thereafter. There are three possible outcomes of these efforts, the TTA/HN could reject the talks, conduct them successfully or let them fail. There is thus far no clarity on how these various contingencies would be tackled by the US and consequently by Pakistan. These vital components of the strategy, the “unknowns”, are missing or being deliberately held back by the US. These “unknowns” have to be analysed and operational strategies to tackle them formulated prior to any proactive measures being taken. One, if the TTA/HN refuse to come to the negotiating table and there are no talks held despite Pakistan’s best efforts, will the US revert back to coercion and military action against the TTA/HN or will it persist with the peace efforts? What will Pakistan be expected to do in such an eventuality? And how will it affect Pakistan’s relations with the TTA/HN?

Two, if they do agree to negotiate then what will be the methodology of the talks? One would expect to see the US play the honest broker and conduct “proximity talks” between the TTA/HN and the National Unity Government (NUG). This seems to be the most promising way of conducting Afghan-led & Afghan-owned talks limiting and focusing them onto the three main parties only who really matter on ground.

Three, in case the talks are successful, then what manner of a political process will ensue? One would expect elections in the very near future and the formation of a multiparty Coalition Government, including the TTA/HN, for the next five years. Thereafter, elections could be held anew and the winning party/parties would be at liberty to rewrite/amend the Constitution, as per the law, if required.

Four, and this is the most critical “unknown”. What happens if the talks “fail”, and if there is no consensus on the future political system, orientation, direction and setup in Afghanistan? Will the US dump Afghanistan and walk away or resort to the use of force once again? Will the US still expect Pakistan to take the battle to the TTA/HN and restart the WOT on its own soil despite having vowed never to do so again? Pakistan needs clarifications to these and other “similar unknowns” before venturing into the Afghan mess once again.

President Trump prides himself in his penchant for and expertise in making deals, calling himself “a fantastic dealmaker”! It is time now for a realistic US-Pakistan deal. Pakistan has leverage and must lay down its terms and conditions, as a quid pro quo, prior to the Afghan talks. One, the US must bring to an immediate end the coercive policies that it is employing against Pakistan. Two, it must pay up the withheld CSF payments forthwith. Three, it should remove the sanctions/bans on the economic and military aid and sales to Pakistan with immediate effect. Four, use its influence with the IMF/IFIs to provide Pakistan with economic relief on the most favourable terms possible. Five, take practical measures to circumscribe all Indian roles, influences and presence in Afghanistan detrimental to Pakistan’s interests and security. Six, intervene with India to stop the genocide of the Kashmiris in Indian Held Kashmir with immediate effect. Seven, as Pakistan tries to get the TTA/HN on the negotiating table in Kabul, simultaneously, the US must get the Indians on to the negotiating table in Islamabad/New Delhi to seek a solution to the festering Kashmir and other issues! Period.

This is an acid test for both the US and Pakistan. Their teamwork, mutual trust, confidence and honesty of purpose and conduct will define the future of not only Afghanistan but the entire South-Central Asian Region. Failure is not an option. The world looks on with abated breath!

 

The author is a retired Brigadier of the

Pakistan Army.