The Path to Tread

American President Donald Trump seems to have cast a new stone in the Af-Pak lake since he took power early this year. While this may not necessarily denote a major shift in relations, there is a lot between the lines which aught not to be missed as far as a prospective shift in the US policy is concerned. Trump’s policy announcement thus far is a barebones policy that still lacks details. However, its significance lies in the fact that such warnings, which were earlier communicated by junior or mid-ranking State Department officials, were for the first time loudly announced by the country’s president.

The key points highlighted in Trump’s speech pertain to a short-to-medium-term redesign of the Afghan policy by increasing the number of troops in Afghanistan as an indication of American commitment to ending the conflict with victory and not as Washington’s Vietnam; seeking Indian partnership towards that end; and making aid to Pakistan conditional on its performance towards cleaning up the area of terrorists that bother the US or its allies. To summarise, what may be looked upon by certain quarters as a strategic shift is a tactical development with two key aspects. First, that it is now an even more narrowly defined conditional relationship. It will now be a day-to-day ‘over-the-counter’ kind of linkage in which Pakistan will be paid every time it delivers something that the US wants. The more critical aspect of course is that India has been taken onboard not just as an American partner but also in an advisory capacity. This means that now on there will be greater noise on Pakistan’s performance, especially if it turns out to be lackluster. Although the US’s main concern would be the Haqqani network, other groups such as the LeT/JuD and Jaishe Muhammad will also be under greater scrutiny.

The reaction in Pakistan is a mix of frustration, anger and disgust – what does the US expect us to do when we are victims of terror ourselves? Didn’t we catch the al Qaeeda suspects and lay down the lives of our citizens and soldiers in the process? It was recently that the new army chief, General Qamar Bajwa, spoke about the need for the US to recognise what Pakistan has done.

Notwithstanding what we ourselves believe, the greater issue is to understand the implications and options that aught to be adopted without enhancing the overall cost to the country.

In the short term a solution has been found with China announcing support for Pakistan. Beijing would certainly try not to allow Washington to turn Af-Pak into a checkmate vis-à-vis Beijing’s dominant position in the Korean Peninsula. The announcement is meant to caution the US against increasing drone attacks, especially inside Pakistan. But despite this friendly assistance, there is a need for Pakistan to engage with the US and its regional neighbours, Afghanistan and India, independently. It would be short-sighted, for instance, to respond through allowing organisations such as the Difae Pakistan Council (DPC) to put up a road-show or permit various militant organisations to express Pakistan’s foreign policy.

There is a lot both good and bad which needs to be read between the lines such as the fact that increasing the number of troops would result in American forces continuing to need Pakistan’s assistance and thus an opportunity for a bilateral dialogue. The relationship needn’t slip into a greater abyss because Islamabad couldn’t think imaginatively. The relations with the US are not just about diminishing coalition support funds but also aid from international financial institutions such as the IMF that look towards Washington for a nod, or a large extent of Pakistan’s exports tied to the Western market. Despite that there are severe reservations in Europe regarding Donald Trump’s policies, a lot of states may not differ on the issue of the opacity of Pakistan’s counter-terrorism goals.

Islamabad aught to re-engage with the US not in a patron-client relationship but as two sovereign states searching for solutions to the common problem of terrorism. The initiative has to be restarted with better diplomacy with both the US and in the South Asian region. Our diplomatic corps and its members have failed in making use of opportunities. In Washington, the current ambassador and his team have not succeeded in going beyond photo-ops, the same way as Pakistan’s diplomats in Kabul have failed to reach out to people and capitalise on the common man’s goodwill. As for the US, it still requires Islamabad’s assistance to start a dialogue with the Taliban.

The American president’s seeming policy shift does not bode a doomsday scenario for Pakistan. In fact, as more troops land in Afghanistan, Washington may find out that even the Russians have stakes in the ongoing conflict in the region. The situation is far too complex for Washington to hold one country responsible. The US upping the ante is a complex affair that even Washington needs to think through.

It is essential for policymakers in Pakistan to look at this development as an opportunity to think through its options starting from bringing about a political solution for Balochistan, absence of which will keep Islamabad vulnerable. Solution, in turn, means dialogue rather than use of direct or indirect force.

Last, but not the least, this is the time to hear voices rather than curb dialogue. Pakistan needs alternative voices to the security and foreign policy debate. Shutting these down will not help the country, its institutions or the future.

Note: This article originally published here.