Who Sets the Agenda? US-Pakistan Bilateral Track Dialogue

  2 comments   |     by M Saeed Khalid

A group of former generals, diplomats and bureaucrats and think tank gurus came together to conduct the second round of the US-Pakistan Bilateral Track-II Dialogue on April 5 and April 6 in Islamabad. The meeting assumed special significance in view of the suspense that prevails regarding the Trump administration’s policies toward South Asia – particularly their Pak-Afghan dimensions.

Speaking at the inaugural session, Prime Minister’s Adviser for Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz emphasised that Pak-US relations retained their importance despite several highs and lows over a period of 70 years. US Ambassador to Pakistan David Hale described the relations between both countries as resilient. The two co-hosts – Raoof Hasan of the Regional Peace Institute, Islamabad and Michel Kugelman of Wilson Centre, Washington – urged the participants to configure their approaches at a time when the Pak-US relations were not facing a diplomatic crisis.

The participants were nonetheless mindful of South Asia – with the exception of Afghanistan – not being a priority area for Team Trump.

Early discussions pointed to the lack of mutual trust owing to a history of both sides not coming up to each other’s expectations.

Whereas Washington measured Pakistan’s role through the prism of Afghanistan, Islamabad had its own optic where New Delhi and Kabul were seen collaborating to destabilise the country. The US felt that in the prevailing regional situation, the most optimistic scenario would involve Washington looking at Pakistan as a part of the solution and not the problem.

Some speakers from Pakistan stressed the need to move away from the classic zero-sum games and benefit from the opportunities provided by CPEC and the emerging trend of greater regional cooperation reflected in the fresh initiative taken by Russia, China, Pakistan and other countries that are concerned with the growing chaos in Afghanistan. Discussing the downturn in Indo-Pak relations, it was suggested that despite India’s knee-jerk reaction to a third-party role, the US could resort to quiet diplomacy to persuade India to address the Kashmir issue.

The US resented the presence of the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network in Pakistan. They sounded frustrated over Pakistan’s inability to bring the Taliban to the negotiation table, adding that if Pakistan has no leverage left with them, there is no need to offer them sanctuaries. The Pakistani view was that there were no operational sanctuaries on this side of the border. Pakistan already had its plate full as it was fighting terrorist networks operating against it from the Afghan side.

On being reminded that the drone attacks in Afghanistan did not target the TTP, the American expert observed that there was infiltration from both sides. Pakistan stressed on the strong need for border controls, pointing out that the Afghan side had failed to stop the terrorists from entering Pakistan. The US recalled that their initial objective in the Afghan war was to eliminate Al-Qaeda and eventually evolved into eliminating the Taliban.

The US expressed a strong desire to have a stable Afghanistan while seeing Pakistan aspire for a friendly Afghanistan to keep India out. A military solution in the conflict was unlikely. But the terms of a bargain through talks were non-existent. It is ironic that outsiders – and not the Afghans – are talking about the talks. The Taliban had no interest in the talks as they wanted to deconstruct the existing state and rule over the whole of Afghanistan. It was stated by a Pakistan delegate that Isis had created a presence in Afghanistan and the Russians wanted to nip it in the bud before its tentacles could spread to the Central Asian States.

There was one inescapable inference of the two-day dialogue: the superpower is in the driving seat and sets the agenda. Pakistan acts or reacts while the US determines the progress, announces rewards or dangles retribution. The outcome: two frustrated partners wondering where to go next?

The big powers have this wonderful proclivity to suffer frequent spells of amnesia. In our immediate neighbourhood, the budding big power has forgotten about the Kashmir dispute and wants everyone else to forget about it as well. Meanwhile, Washington does not believe in mea culpa. It does not admit that the Afghan imbroglio cannot be settled till the warring parties accept to live and let live.

There is so much the world can do to restore peace to the country. And there are no indications of that happening anytime soon. The government in India and their soul mate in Kabul are stuck in the same groove. Take out terrorism and peace will return to Kashmir and Afghanistan. The Trump administration has yet to make a policy statement on Afghanistan. The well-meaning remark by Ambassador Nikki Haley was spurned by the Indian government. India has been trying its own version of the Monroe doctrine in the Subcontinent. Kabul wishes Pakistan to deliver the Taliban at the talks, but has not decided what kind of bargain they want. The US is anxious to prevent a military victory by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Washington can sustain its presence in Afghanistan but seems willing to step up forces if the Taliban threat becomes more ominous. Hopes to see Afghanistan standing on its feet have been belied by the bickering government of ‘unity’ in Kabul. The military capability of the Afghan security forces is on the decline. Washington, New Delhi and Kabul find an easy target by blaming Pakistan for their own failures. It is futile to expect much from the two neighbours.

If the US wants greater cooperation from Pakistan, it should be based on mutual interests, not on Washington permanently assigning work to Pakistan and paying compensation for services rendered.

The US should lower its expectations from a country which is on its way to become the fifth largest in terms of population and is already among the world’s top 10 military powers with nuclear capabilities.

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