The embittered, helter-skelter Pakistan-US relationship is coming out of a turbulent decade of mutual suspicions over Islamabad’s alleged duplicity in Afghan matters, discussions with Pakistan observers in Washington indicate.
Is the new engagement embedded in political realism derived from lessons from the past decade, or is it yet another transitory phase of mutual accommodation and appreciation arising out of the pressing challenges that lie ahead?
The current discourse in Washington revolves around three major issues – the 2014 troop drawdown in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s role before and after the withdrawal, and Islamabad’s own future in a South Asia defined by an economically surging India.
The administration continues to agonize over a belligerent and unpredictable Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has so far adamantly refused to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), frustrating the Obama administration’s efforts to get over with the matter before the presidential elections set for April. Karzai’s refusal has also held up decision-making on the drawdown. He gave the US and its allies another jolt on February 14 by releasing 65 Taliban fighters from the Bagram jail, triggering condemnation from US military officials who say the men were “dangerous individuals” directly linked to attacks killing or wounding 32 Nato personnel and 23 Afghans.
Disregarding the US warning, Karzai called the prison at Bagram a “Taliban-producing factory,” set the men free, and alleged that some detainees had been tortured into hating their country.
Only two days earlier, in an interview with The Telegraph of London, Karzai had caused even greater consternation in Washington by saying that he “saw no good” in the American presence in his country. Questioning the US role in Afghanistan, Karzai asserted: “This whole 12 years was one of constant pleading with America to treat the lives of our civilians as lives of people. They did not work for me, they worked against me.”
No surprise that Karzai’s erratic attitude seems to have drawn Islamabad and Washington closer.
“The US ignored and dismissed Pakistan for the sake of Karzai but now look what he is talking about,” remarked a diplomat. Pakistanis kept insisting that elements in the Kabul administration were not in favor of the peace process, but nobody gave it credence until Karzai demolished the Doha process,” said a Pakistani-American, associated with the US administration.
Washington also seems to have moderated and revised its expectations of Pakistan on two counts – the role in the reconciliation process and the influence over the Haqqanis and Mullah Omar’s Taliban.
This also suggests that the anti-Pakistan sentiment that had existed in Washington until former Afghan-Pakistan envoy Marc Grossman’s last Islamabad visit in September 2012 has eased.
“Now Pakistanis need to develop a positive narrative on a nation that is a victim of its own cold war era policies as well as of the consequences of global geo-politics,” suggested the influential Pakistani-origin official, saying that the course of events unleashed by Karzai is the primary driver of the pro-Pakistan sentiment on the Capitol Hill and State Department.
The US has spent nearly $700 billion in Afghanistan so far and continues to take the flak. There is quite a discernible inclination towards “positive engagement with Pakistan as the preferred option rather than confrontationist squeezing of an ally,” said the official.
This too has to be seen in the context of the greater synergy emerging even among Afghan stakeholders – Hekmetyar’s Hezbe Islami has announced full participation in the presidential elections, implying thereby the acceptance of the present system and lending support to the Pakistan-US push for peace through presidential elections with support from most of the factions. People like Motasim Agha Jan too are inclined to working within the system and thus trying to work their way through obstacles and obstinacy of Mullah Omar’s Taliban.
Abdul Raqeeb Takhari was a minister for Refugees Affairs under the Taliban rule, and a close associate of Motasim, a Taliban leader based in Turkey, who favors peace talks with President Karzai’s administration to end the insurgency in Afghanistan. Motasim condemned the killing of Raqeeb as “the handiwork of the enemy of Islam, Afghanistan, peace and stability” describing him as “a peace campaigner”.
On the face of it, Pakistan and the United States believe they can cross the presidential election hurdle in April and then get the BSA signed by Karzai’s successor. The current strategy seems to focus on isolating the hardline Mullah Omar and his associates by getting Hekmetyar and Motasim on board, neutralizing the Haqqani network through Pakistan. This, they hope, will pave the way for relatively comfortable drawdown of foreign troops, and simultaneously build the constituency for peace. Whether they can thereby really pin down the big elephant in the room, i.e. Mullah Omar is the key question as of now.
Imtiaz Gul is the Executive Director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies
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