IN THE NEWS: AMERICA’S CONVERGING INTEREST WITH PAKISTAN (JANUARY 9, 2019)

Written by admin on Wednesday, January 9th, 2019

Selected by Olivier Immig & Jan van Heugten

America’s converging interest with Pakistan
SOURCE: The Express Tribune
Wednesday, January 9, 2019
By TALAT MASOOD

The state of Pakistan-US relations that have been going through a prolonged period of tension and unpredictability presented a glimmer of hope with President Trump’s latest tweets and remarks in which he expressed his desire to meet Pakistani leadership. Although these comments once again reflected the poor level of understanding that President Trump has all along displayed about Pakistan, its leadership and the history of our relationship and that of South Asia. His remarks that Pakistan engaged in lies and deceit for years while the US gave it $33 billion in aid was an offensive and biased statement. For it conveniently ignored the reality that Pakistan paid a heavy price for siding with the US in all its adventures in the region and still continues to suffer as a consequence.

In the 1980s, the US provided Pakistan with funds and arms to train the Afghan Mujahideen and prepare them to fight the Soviets. And later in the 1990s when the Soviets withdrew Washington suspended its assistance, imposed sanctions for pursuing the nuclear programme and made it hard for Pakistan to deal with the aggravated consequences.

President Obama was no exception when in his second term he suspended Pakistan’s aid programme for providing a safe haven to the Taliban leadership and Haqqani network. And President Trump has continued with the same policy except that he has been even harsher and intemperate in his remarks.

It would be interesting to see how Imran Khan would get along with President Trump. Both have strong personalities and egocentric streaks and are rather unconventional. In the interest of the two countries and the region it is expected that they would find ways of normalising the relationship. Trump was comfortable with such diverse personalities like Kim Jong-un and got along well with Russia’s, President Putin, in June of 2018.

Despite the past setbacks in Pakistan-US relations, recent converging interests afford an invaluable opportunity for both countries to improve the relationship and build mutual trust. Interestingly, if we look at our history every government in Pakistan, including the present one, has aspired for better relations with Washington. It is a different matter that in certain cases circumstances were such that it did not work out in Pakistan’s favour.

It is unfortunate that while the official relationship has remained rather hostile, the people-to-people relationship has never been taken seriously. Think tanks have been mostly echoing the official mantra and breeding hostility. Lack of understanding about Pakistan in the US should be a matter of concern for the government and diaspora in the US.

Pakistan’s relations with the US do not have to be at the expense of any country, especially China with whom we have deep economic and strategic ties. After all, China itself has opened up to the rest of the world despite the exclusivity of its political system and divergent strategic interests. China’s largest trading partner is the US despite their different systems and conflicting strategic goals. Another example nearer home is of India that enjoys close and overlapping strategic and economic interest with the US yet has developed wide-ranging economic and commercial ties with China. These diplomatic alignments have improved India’s options and provided greater flexibility in international relations.

Pakistan has been fortunate that Saudi Arabia, the UAE and China have been generous in providing financial assistance still it may have to go to the IMF. Washington exerts greater clout by virtue of its larger financial share in the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, IMF and other international monetary and political organisations. An important factor that plays out during negotiations with these organisations is the quality of relations with the US.

President Trump’s current primary interest in engaging with Pakistan is that it should facilitate US withdrawal from Afghanistan by applying maximum pressure on the Taliban and Haqqani network to agree to a negotiated political settlement. The other interest of the US is that Pakistan continues to allow unhindered transit of its logistic support to Afghanistan.

It is clear that President Trump has decided to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan, which was reconfirmed by Vice-President Pence in a recent interview to Fox News. Trump had indicated that 7,000 troops, nearly half the US force, would be pulled back. Initially, as reported it could be 3,000 followed by a gradual withdrawal of the remaining forces.

The news of withdrawal of forces has been welcomed by the Taliban and received with great trepidation by the Afghan leadership. There are serious concerns that Afghanistan could lapse into chaos and an intensified civil war would follow. For it would be difficult for the Afghan government on its own to be able to sustain itself economically or militarily. Meanwhile Pakistan, Iran and Russia would be taking measures to protect their interest and cope with the emerging fallout of fewer American troops.

For Pakistan the challenges are manifold as US forces withdraw from Afghanistan. It would have to further strengthen border management, take measures to prevent an influx of refugees and minimise the spillover effects from uncertain conditions in Afghanistan. Most likely, Pakistan and other regional countries would shore up their ties with various groups within Afghanistan to protect their national interests. In case Pakistan fortifies its ties with the Taliban it runs the risk of alienating the progressive and educated class of Afghans and also the Americans. Moreover, the success of Taliban in Afghanistan could encourage the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and Daesh to make inroads in Fata and Balochistan. This and many other factors could throw up a huge challenge of navigating the mega event of the US withdrawing from Afghanistan. Pakistan while keeping the primary interest of insulating the country from crossborder terrorism and drug mafia would have to assist the Afghanistan government that it can steer the crisis and facilitate the withdrawal.

Anticipated developments in Afghanistan and the crisis in the Middle East provide Pakistan a unique opportunity to play a more purposeful role on the regional scene and improve its relations with Washington based on mutual trust and respect.

 

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