Under the euphoria of a “Naya Pakistan” (New Pakistan), Pakistan yearns for resetting its bilateral ties with the US while overlooking the fact that the ground realities are both coercive and restrictive. The agenda that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo brought along on September 5 was the trite one: stamp out the dens of terrorism from the land of Pakistan.
The Pak-US huddle acknowledged a point: the Pak-US relations had become tenuous, just short of a full-fledged rupture. Both sides, however, remained divided on the way to improve relations. Pakistan thought that the solution lay in resetting relations on new terms whereas the US thought that the solution lay in following the prevalent plan of taking stern action against terrorists. Similarly, the two sides also remained divided on another point. Pakistan’s representatives tried to convince the US delegation that Pakistan had sacrificed enormously in terms of men and material and that Pakistan was averse to act on the advice of the US any further. Instead of repeating the mantra of “do more,” Pompeo replied that Pakistan remained short of acting decisively against the terrorists on its land. In short, in addition to “do more,” the reply included another demand: act decisively – leaving no space for any “do more” – to extirpate the scourge of terrorism.
Pakistan’s ambitious agenda to reset the terms of engagement faces the challenge of timing. One of the major new conditions the Pakistani delegate conveyed was that Pakistan would focus on just shared (bilateral) interests, and not on any unilateral interest of the US. In other words, Pakistan conveyed that it would prefer to watch its own interests, and where its interests coincided with the US interests, it would act but not otherwise. When the US is busy in concluding the war on terror in Afghanistan, Pakistan is trying to set new terms based on its own preferences. The same also means that Pakistan disengaged itself from the war on terror unilaterally. The tangible change in stance must have disheartened the US envoy.
The time to effect such a change is not in 2018, but it could have been effected twice in the past. First, it was when Pakistan decided to enter the war on terror in 2001 and, secondly, it was when Pakistan decided to own the war on terror in 2009.
On 19 September, 2001, then President General Pervez Musharraf gave three reasons for Pakistan’s joining the war on terror. First, to exchange intelligence and information with the US; secondly, to offer support to the US in using Pakistan’s air space; and thirdly, to offer logistic land support to the US army (and the coalition of the willing). These reasons were beside the compulsions imposed by the UNSC resolutions (1368 and 1373) on Afghanistan to eradicate terrorism as a threat to international peace and security and punish all those who support terrorism. Pakistan is oblivious of the fact that the UNSC resolutions are still functional.
Despite General Musharraf’s decision to join the war on terror, Pakistanis struggled with owning the war. In the first battle of Swat in late 2007 (from October to November), Pakistan conceded Swat district to the Taliban. Despite a subsequent army offensive, the Taliban held sway over the most area of Swat in 2008. On 16 February, 2009, the Taliban and the Pakistan army agreed on a ceasefire followed by a peace agreement allowing the Taliban establishing a sharia court under the Sharia Law in Swat. The mediator of the agreement was Sufi Mohammad. This was how a mini-Caliphate saw the light of day and this was how the possibility for replacing democracy with the Caliphate reared its head.
In April 2009, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that the Pakistani Taliban were a “mortal threat” to the world, and they were not far from the Margalla Hills of Islamabad. The reference was to Pakistan’s nuclear installation near the capital. Consequently, in May 2009, the Pakistan government decided to launch the second battle of Swat. By September 2009, the Pakistan army was able to release Swat from the Taliban shackles. In October 2009, Clinton visited Pakistan and asserted that some Pakistanis officials bore responsibility for allowing terrorists from al-Qaeda to operate from safe heavens along Pakistan’s western border areas. During her visit, the Pakistanis publicly admitted that they then owned the war on terror (as their war). Over the years, the Taliban (of the Afghan or Pakistan hue) might have replaced al-Qaeda; however, in essential details, the stance of the US is still the same in 2018 as it was in 2001 or 2009. That is, root out militants from Pakistan’s land who are interfering in the internal affairs of Afghanistan.
This point leaves no space for Pakistan to take a U-turn and try to reset new terms of engagement. It is abin to scorning the bilateral relations and undermining the values of diplomacy. The context of understanding is quite narrow and specific: Pak-Afghan. The context is not broad enough to pass through China or Russia, contrary to the delusional belief of many Pakistanis, whether they are in uniform or in civvies.
The Coalition Support Fund was an umbilical cord linking Pakistan and the US, though reluctantly. The link stands severed and the US has decided to stop paying Pakistan on its expenditure claims. With that, for all practical purposes, the coalition has ended, along with the Pak-US partnership against terrorism. The development is quite ominous. On the one hand, Pakistan has refused to help a country that forged financial and military ties in Pakistan’s hour of need (from mid-50’s to mid-90’s), while on the other hand, Pakistan is hell bent on changing horses in midstream.
Pakistan might have calculated well what its diversion to Russia (or China for that matter) at the cost of the US would yield benefits, but Pakistan might have not calculated well what harm the diversion at this point in time would accrue to it.