A more realistic US policy would probably be to reach out to the Afghan Taliban, bypassing Pakistan. And a recent announcement suggests just that.
Pakistan appears to have effectively rejected Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s offer of a ‘reset’ in relations with the United States. The US offer was predicated on Pakistan playing a role ‘in bringing about a negotiated peace in Afghanistan’ and taking ‘sustained and decisive measures against terrorists and militants threatening regional peace and stability.’
Within a week of Pompeo’s short stopover in Islamabad, Pakistan’s Supreme Court has overruled restrictions imposed by the previous government on Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), a front for the terrorist Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), and its charity arm, Falahi Insaniyat Foundation (FIF). The restrictions on JuD and FIF reflected the designation by the United States of both organisations as terrorist fronts.
Both JuD and FIF are linked to LeT founder Hafiz Saeed, who has been subject to United Nations sanctions since December 2008 for “participating in the financing, planning, facilitating, preparing or perpetrating of acts of activities by, in conjunction with, under the name of, on behalf or in support of” LeT and Al-Qaeda.
Pakistan’s Supreme Court is notorious for acting at the behest of its national security apparatus and its current Chief Justice Saqib Nisar has earned a reputation for being close to both the country’s establishment and the newly appointed civilian government led by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan.
Anyone who understands the manoeuvrings of Pakistan’s establishment and politics could see the court’s judgment about Saeed’s charity as a response to Pompeo’s remarks after his meetings with Khan and Pakistan army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa. Pompeo was accompanied on his short visit to Pakistan by General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to ensure better military-to-military messaging.
The US Secretary of State said that he wanted better US-Pakistan relations but “it’s time for us to begin to deliver on our joint commitment” and Washington expected “on the ground” actions that would help “begin to build confidence and trust.” From the American perspective, it was important for Pompeo to convey to Pakistan’s leaders that the US was willing to set things right as long as Pakistan keeps its part of the bargain.
Avoiding harsh language while in Islamabad so as not to offend their Pakistani hosts, the Americans were blunter in the joint statement after their ‘2+2’ ministerial dialogue with India. That statement “denounced any use of terrorist proxies in the region” and “called on Pakistan to ensure that the territory under its control is not used to launch terrorist attacks on other countries.”
The India-US Joint Statement “called on Pakistan to bring to justice expeditiously the perpetrators of the Mumbai, Pathankot, Uri, and other cross-border terrorist attacks” and spoke of “strengthening cooperation and action against terrorist groups, including Al-Qa’ida, ISIS, Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Hizb-ul Mujahideen, the Haqqani Network, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, D-Company, and their affiliates.”
Pakistani officials know that terrorism has been the sticking point in relations between the erstwhile allies, almost since the end of the US-backed jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan in 1989. Americans have wanted Pakistan to stop using Jihadis as proxies against India and in Afghanistan. Pakistan has either denied doing what it does or explained it away as a national security imperative.
The Americans have taken Pakistani promises of acting against all terrorists seriously on several critical occasions, only to be disappointed later. Former president George W. Bush had hoped for a complete turnaround in Pakistan’s policy after 9/11 but learned that “obsession with India” prevented General Pervez Musharraf from fulfilling his promise.
In 2008, soon after the election of a civilian government, the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, and the CIA’s Deputy Director, Stephen Kappes, travelled to Islamabad on a mission similar to the one undertaken by Pompeo and Dunford. The purpose was to seek Pakistan’s commitment to comprehensive action against all terrorist groups based in the country.
Soon after the Mumbai attacks in November 2008, I accompanied Pakistan’s National Security Adviser, Major General Mahmud Ali Durrani, to meetings with US officials. My notes of the meeting with President Bush’s National Security Adviser, Stephen Hadley, provide useful context for the current US-Pakistan deliberations.
Hadley had said then that after 9/ 11, President Musharraf responded positively in his words and actions and appeared to make a strategic shift. Subsequently, in the aftermath of the bombings of the Indian Parliament in 2002, the US realised that instead of a strategic shift. Pakistan had only taken some incremental, half-hearted and reversible steps. Hadley suspected that after the Mumbai bombings, Pakistan was following the 2002 example.
In 2008, the US demanded a strategic shift against terrorist organizations like LeT, pointing out that American lives had been lost in Mumbai. Hadley had told Durrani that the Mumbai bombings provided “an opportunity to strengthen civilian supremacy over all institutions of State” – a reference to concerns that the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) sometimes acted independently.
Pakistan promised action and initially arrested several individuals connected to the Mumbai attacks. Subsequently, it demanded “more intelligence, more evidence, and more material help” to help both action against terrorist groups and prosecutions against those involved in attacks outside Pakistan.
American officials were then provided with a preferred sequence in which Pakistan would act against various terrorist groups, beginning with groups that were responsible for terrorist attacks inside the country. US drone strikes were specifically requested against Baitullah Mehsud and other leaders of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan who had declared war on the Pakistan army.
While the Americans kept their promise of material assistance and drone strikes against those considered enemies by Pakistan, the country has managed to avoid acting against Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network, or LeT and other groups targeting India.
Relations with India
It is unlikely that it will do so, especially at a time when Pakistan’s calculus seems to be that the US is eager to leave Afghanistan and has become closer to India now than to Pakistan. Ten years ago, Pakistan depended on the US more than it does now and the country’s fantasy of having access to unlimited Chinese assistance had not begun.
Now, it should be clear to Americans that a hyper-nationalist Pakistani civilian leadership is unlikely to try and deliver what relatively more pro-American politicians could not.
As for the Pakistani military, it has always worked on the assumption that it can wait the Americans out in Afghanistan. Why would it give in and make compromises at a time when it feels its dream of American withdrawal is about to materialise?
A more realistic US policy would probably be to reach out to the Afghan Taliban, bypassing Pakistan. Pompeo’s announcement that legendary Afghan-American diplomat, Zalmay Khalilzad, will now be “the State Department’s lead person” for reconciliation efforts in Afghanistan suggests that is where things might be headed.
This article is reprinted here with the permission of the author and The Print.