The US softens up on Pakistan to find ‘peace’ in Afghanistan

The US softens up on Pakistan to find ‘peace’ in Afghanistan

Salman Rafi Sheikh,
Pentagon Chief Spokesperson Dana W. White, during a Thursday afternoon briefing in Washington, expressed willingness on part of the US to work with Pakistan to promote peace and security in the region.

After experiencing months of cold, it seems that the US is starting to realize the folly of disengaging Pakistan, and is accordingly warming up. While underlying tensions remain, the recent change in emphasis on the role that Pakistan can play in Afghanistan does signify a US willingness to accommodate Pakistan’s interests to have it on its side of the war.

Last week, in a press briefing on Afghanistan, the Pentagon chief spokesperson Dana White said that not only could the US and Pakistan work together because they have many opportunities, but Pakistan could help the US achieve peace.

“We think Pakistan can do more, and we’ll look to them and work with them to find opportunities to further regional security”, White added, reinforcing how Pakistan remained deeply and inevitably relevant to finding peace in Afghanistan.

For Pakistan, however, this change in emphasis on ‘doing more’ against terrorists to ‘doing more’ to stabilize region is as troubling as significant.

It is troubling because re-engaging with the US, probably on US terms, in Afghanistan would potentially be a diplomatic challenge given that Pakistan is already pursing peace process with China and Russia, and have helped open back-door diplomatic channels to open up negotiations.

And, given the way the US and Russia have come to differ on Afghanistan, the crucial question for Pakistan is: can Pakistan make successful diplomacy by riding two boats, rowing in opposite directions and engaged in shuffling geo-political chessboard, simultaneously?

As it turns out, it is not Pakistan that should be worried about riding two boats as long as it serves its interests. It is the US that needs to worry about and find a way to deal with Pakistan, a country that is vital for peace in Afghanistan not only because it shares a long border with Afghanistan but also because Afghanistan’s internal situation directly affects its own security situation (read: the Afghan migrants to Pakistan is a real dilemma). Therefore, it stakes are as high as the US’, and Pakistan will sit with the actors willing and capable of taking its own interests into account and accommodate.

Given that Pakistan has already find alternatives to the US, it is the US that needs Pakistan not the vice versa; hence, the meaningful change in what the US sees as Pakistan’s vital role in bringing regional stability.

According to Pakistan’s diplomatic sources, the reason why the US is softening up is not an actual realizationof Pakistan’s vitality but that the US strategy to put economic and military pressure on Pakistan by cutting off aid came too late to make an impact.

The sources further said that by the time the US developed its “regional approach” to Afghanistan, Pakistan had already found powerful regional alternatives to Afghanistan (China and Russia). And given that the US is already engaged in a self-imposed ‘trade-war’ with China, and its relations with Russia are already too chilly, Pakistan’s interests will be served better if it, too, kept its approach regionally rather than extra-regionally focused.

This has already forced the US to show sensitivity to Pakistan’s position. And, if Pakistan continues to walk the same path vis-à-vis the US, it will be able to achieve more in terms of raising its status as the key to peace in Afghanistan.

The path thus chalked out, therefore, means that Pakistan doesn’t simply intend to fall for the US softening up.

In fact, that Pakistan intends to maintain a strong position vis-à-vis the US is evident from the way it has imposed, in response to identical US restriction on Pakistani diplomats in the US, restrictions on the US diplomats in Pakistan. According to the notification issued by the Foreign Ministry on Friday, seven major facilities accorded to the US diplomats have been unequivocally withdrawn, signifying Pakistan’s intention to pay the US in the same coin in Pakistan or elsewhere i.e., Afghanistan.

Part of this retaliation and unchanged cold response to the US is the growing realization in Pakistan that the US might withdraw, short of abandoning, from Afghanistan soon.

In fact, it was only a few days ago that a US senator, Rand Paul, said in an interview that the president Trump told him in a private discussion with him that “we’re getting the hell out of there [Afghanistan].”

But the US, if it really wants to pull itself out of Afghanistan, needs a face-saving exit, and that is where Pakistan becomes relevant again.

While we shall have a clearer picture in coming days, what is obvious here is that the US needs Pakistan even if it wants to immediately withdraw or find a way to have a meaningful exit through a political settlement with the Taliban.

Pakistan, given the scenario thus building, must push for engaging the US in a multilateral framework along with China and Russia to make sure whatever arrangement is finally agreed, ifitis agreed upon at all, it isn’t the only one that has to bear the fallout.