During the recent visit of US Secretary of Defence, James Mattis, to Pakistan both Washington and Islamabad vowed to search for “common ground” for cooperation in the war in Afghanistan. If the search for common ground is made in earnest by both the states there could not only be significant strides towards restoring peace in Afghanistan, but also marked improvement in the bilateral relations of the US and Pakistan. The most important outcome of Mattis’ recent visit to Pakistan was that the latter agreed that it would look into the issue that some miscreants have been using Pakistan’s territory in the garb of Afghan refugees to create unrest in Afghanistan. This is a clear allusion to the Afghan Haqqani Network, which Washington blames for attacks on its forces and Afghan military and police in Afghanistan. Afghanistan since long has charged Pakistan for material support to the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, both waging an insurgency in Afghanistan.
On the other hand, during Mattis’ visit the US agreed to look into the legitimate concerns of Islamabad including India’s growing footprint in Afghanistan. This is also an important step forward to improve relations between Washington and Islamabad, at least in the context of Afghanistan conflict. Otherwise, the US has established deep multidimensional relations with Pakistan’s arch-rival India. The fact of the matter is that due to forging strong bilateral ties the US also erroneously ignored Pakistan concerns regarding India’s anti-Pakistan role in Afghanistan. After realizing Pakistan has legitimate concerns and interests which are compromised by the growing presence and role of New Delhi in Afghanistan, Washington has tried to assuage Pakistan’s fears. This is, indeed, welcome. Pakistan’s concerns regarding India’s undue role in Afghanistan is more than justified because Afghanistan is a next door neighbour of Pakistan while it is located far away from India. Therefore, the latter’s pronounced presence in Afghanistan does not serve any purpose but to create problems for Islamabad. India’s has only one legitimate justification for having a significant presence in Afghanistan, that is economic relations between the two countries. But New Delhi could not realize, or does not want to, that India-Afghanistan trade could only be possible when Pakistan agrees to this. Pakistan in turn could acquiesce to the intra-regional and inter-regional economic integration between South and Central Asia when it has solid guarantees that its physical security interests would not get compromised by doing so. Pakistan could be given a guarantee only by India that it would not use Afghan soil to create problems for Pakistan, which India has done traditionally and has been doing since the ouster of the pro-Pakistan Taliban regime in late 2001, by the US-led NATO forces.
Reportedly, during his sojourn in Islamabad, Mattis’ tone was not as harsh as the language which earlier Rex Tillerson used during his last visit to Pakistan or, for that matter, the language which President Donald Trump has employed since taking office in January this year. This means that, ultimately, Washington has realized the importance of Pakistan in the region especially for stabilizing Afghanistan and, therefore, it means business with Pakistan. This is a positive development, because an amicable solution to the conflict in Afghanistan lies in engaging Pakistan instead of marginalizing it. Islamabad has played a significant role in the US-led NATO war on terror in the region, including in Afghanistan. But mistakenly on the behest of India, thanks to the hawkish diplomacy of its diplomats, Washington was led to believe that by marginalizing Pakistan, positive results could be achieved in Afghanistan. This strategy, which obviously has been miscalculated, has not worked. This situation suggests that Washington has, at least partially, revisited its strategy of taking a very tough line regarding Pakistan. This has given immediate results as is evident from Pakistan’s promise to look for any miscreants on its soil creating unrest in Afghanistan.
Indications of improvement in the soured relations between the US and Pakistan could be observed a couple of months back after Pakistani state forces successfully recovered an American female hostage, her Canadian husband and their three children, born during a four-year long captivity in Afghanistan. The hostages were recovered in Kohat district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, as the unknown group shifted them to Pakistan and intelligence were shared by US authorities with Pakistan. Though the recovery of US and Canadian hostages is an isolated incident, but its impact on the US-Pakistan relationship has been quite strong. This shows the complex and delicate nature of relations between the two countries.
The timing of the incident of the captives’ recovery by Pakistani state forces from their Afghan hostage-takers is extremely important. The incident took place soon after President Donald Trump unveiled his new policy for South Asia and Af-Pak. Under the newly announced policy, President Trump’s administration has been considering imposing specific sanctions on Pakistan and withdrawing from Islamabad the non-NATO ally of Washington status. Reports have also been making the rounds that the US may also declare Pakistan a state sponsoring terrorism. The Trump administration has so far not acted on any of these policy decisions. While declaring Pakistan a state sponsoring terrorism is quite unlikely, Washington could impose specific sanctions on Pakistan and withdraw the non-NATO ally status.
A couple of months back, we forecasted in these lines that the recovery of US and Canadian captives may force President Trump, Secretary Defense James Mattis and other American leaders to revisit their policy. We analyzed that at least the effective operation by Pakistani security forces to recover the US and Canadian nationals made captive by an unknown Afghan militant group, has triggered a debate inside the US policy institutions causing them to reconsider the notion that Pakistan is too important an ally to be abandoned. The upshot of the renewed debate in the US regarding the role of Pakistan in the global war on terror could both be positive and negative. Prima facie the role of Pakistani authorities in the safe recovery of Western hostages would bring positive signals and perhaps measures from Washington. This seems to have happened as mentioned above.
US-Pakistan ties have weathered the test and travails of time and circumstances. There have been ups and downs in the US-Pakistan ties but the relationship has never broken down and probably will not in the future. However, it would be a fundamental mistake by both the states to limit their decades-long relationship to cooperation in the global war on terror and Afghanistan. There are other avenues and vistas of cooperation and understanding, that must be explored.