Afghanistan Crisis and Pakistan-US Disagreements on Operational Aspects of Countering Terrorism

For the past seven decades, the relationship between Pakistan and United States (US) has been characterised by bouts of estrangement and inconsistency, interspersed with sporadic cooperative endeavours. For the most part, this relationship has been like a rollercoaster ride. There have been prominent highs and painful lows in this uneven partnership, entailing self-interest driven transactional engagements. In the Twentieth Century, the relations were shaped by dynamics of the Cold War. For Pakistan, the military alliances with the US were considered essential to keep India at bay. In the second decade of the Twenty-first Century, this relationship has become one-sided, with the US blaming Pakistan for all its troubles in Afghanistan, and asking it to ‘do more’ to bring about peace in the war-ravaged country. This paradigm shift has occurred because of changed US regional policies. The US government has discarded the Indo-Pak hyphenation and built a strategic partnership with India to counterbalance the rising power of China in the region. In this changed scheme of things, Pakistan’s utility has been reduced to its perceived ability to bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table as a prelude to peace and as a means for the US to find a face saving exit from Afghanistan.
As a new world order takes shape, it is time to revisit the troubled Pak-US relations. An early death of this relationship has been foretold due to US’ exasperation with Pakistan’s alleged noncooperation in Afghanistan. US President Donald Trump in an infamous 2018 New Year tweet declared Pakistan unworthy of its financial and military aid. Even before this angry outburst, the volume of US aid was undergoing a systematic reduction. The symbolic US displeasure has been demonstrated by suspension of the International Military Education and Training (IMET) programme and the threat of economic sanctions if blacklisted by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). The Trump administration also warned the International Monetary Fund (IMF) not to offer an economic bailout to Pakistan, so that it does not repay loans accumulated on account of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) with US dollars.
Policymakers realise the need to repair and rest relations, but there are obvious problems based on perceived expectations on both sides. The Americans, in particular, now merely view this relationship on the basis of finding an acceptable solution to the Afghan conundrum – the only apparent converging interest. On the other hand, Pakistan seeks a balanced relationship that will ultimately lead to peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan without compromising on its national security concerns.
This article posits that Pakistan should premise its relations with the US and all other state parties with shared interests and concerns on practical national aims and objectives. In this vein, it chronicles the history of relations between US and Pakistan, especially with Afghanistan at the centre of their engagement, and suggests future avenues for cooperation.
Historical Perspective of Pak–US Relations
Pakistan, since its inception, has sought to have good relations with the US, but this has rarely ever been an easy foreign policy objective. The complex relationship has taken varying manifestations such as staunch ally, troublesome friend and even a threat (Hussain 2005). In recent years, it has become problematic to say the least because areas of convergence have reduced.
It would not be wrong to say that Pak–US relationship depicts a recurring theme of engagements and disengagements. The US has always pursued its relations keeping in view ‘global dynamics’, whereas Pakistan has formed its stance while paying attention to ‘regional impulses’; the imbalance of perceptions has resulted in an irreversible trust deficit and an inherent discontinuity in relations.
Their cordial engagement can be viewed in three phases: the first commencing from mid-1950s to mid-1960s; the second conciliation was evident during the Afghan Jihad; and lastly, their united resolve to curb global terrorism after 9/11. Ironically, Afghanistan has been a unifying as well as a divisive theme in their relations.
These relations were initiated to contain the rise of global communism. Pakistan found it an ideal solution to build its military forces to counter India (Akhtar 2011). With the Cold War at its height, the US was, of course, looking for regional allies to hinder the expanding Soviet influence. Both soon entered into a system of alliances. The US provided Pakistan with economic and military aid, and the latter pledged its support to Washington while denouncing communism (Ibid.).
However, lack of shared perspectives of cooperation became evident when the US withheld its support to Pakistan (and India) after the war of 1965 between the two South Asian neighbours. This brought to an end the first phase of a mutually beneficial partnership (Khan 1967). One can argue that the blossoming of Pakistan and China relationship also led to the cooling off of the US enthusiasm towards the former, but this would become more pronounced during the Twenty-first Century (Lieven 2002).
Pakistan and the US once again scaled new heights of cooperation in expelling the Soviets from Afghanistan during the period of the so-called Afghan Jihad (1979-89). The viability of relations between them was so critical that it overshadowed the concerns of nuclear proliferation and undemocratic regimes rampant in Pakistan’s governance practices. The country was used as a sanctuary and a training ground by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) (Marker 2010). As a US partner in the Afghan war against the Soviet Union, Pakistan received 3.2 billion dollars in 1981; 600 million dollars a year in military and economic assistance thereafter; 40 F16s; Cobra helicopters; anti-aircraft cannons; and unprecedented support from the CIA to the ISI (Soherwordi 2010). More than guns and stinger missiles, the biggest weapon against the Soviet military was the call for Jihad from all over the Islamic world. This left radiating repercussions in the form of radicalism in the region. It also established Afghanistan as a pivot of focus between Pak-US relations for years to come. Incongruous to united efforts against the Soviets, the US abruptly left the region in 1989, and its ally – Pakistan, as it hit the country with a wave of sanctions.
The sanctions against Pakistan at the end of the Afghan Jihad came in three sets, and left a lasting impact on their mutual relations. The first one was the Pressler Amendment of 1990; the second was enacted in 1998 after Pakistan conducted its nuclear tests; and the third one after the military takeover of 1999 (Haas and Halperin 1998). The Pressler Amendment, enacted in 1985, turned out to be the most destructive as it stipulated that military and economic aid to Pakistan was conditional upon certification by the US President over non-possession of nuclear devices by the country (Ibid.). The lack of certification led to detrimental consequences for the economy and security all through the 1990s. This decade also witnessed rise of the Taliban. Heightened tensions in Kashmir and the Kargil conflict added to instability in the region. Pakistan faced more isolation due to the increasing coercion by the US. The end of the Twentieth Century marked significant cooling in Pak-US relations (Kux 2001).
The turn of the century brought new changes in the regional dynamics, making it necessary for the US to seek renewed cooperation with Pakistan. 9/11 sent violent tremors across the globe and exposed vulnerability of the US to independent, non-state actors. In order to extract revenge from al-Qaeda and their hosts, the Taliban, the US Government put the entire world on notice, and specifically presented the Government of Pakistan (GoP) seven demands, including inter alia, intelligence and logistic support or else threatened dire consequences. The GoP immediately renounced its relations with Taliban in Afghanistan, and agreed to all the demands without demur.
This timely action saved Pakistan from the wrath of the US, but it created new enemies in the shape of those who were earlier fighting the Soviets and had now become sworn enemies of the Americans. The US Operation Enduring Freedom, aimed to defeat and destroy al-Qaeda and the Taliban (Taddeo 2010), brought in more instability in the region. The Taliban fled to the countryside and al-Qaeda morphed into other forms of resistance in other parts of the world. The most recent incarnation of anti-US insurgency is the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Pakistan had no other option but to support the US in Afghanistan. It also became embroiled in a counterinsurgency campaign on its own soil as anti-state elements began to target government forces. The Pakistan Navy (PN) and Air Force also became part of the overall effort to defeat those elements hostile to the state. The PN was the only regional navy which participated in Coalition Maritime Interdiction Operations – the maritime component of Operation Enduring Freedom (Hussain 2005). Since Pakistan became a willing partner in the war against al-Qaeda, it became the recipient of US military and economic aid. In view of its unrelenting and active support, the country received ten billion dollars in aid since 9/11 till 2007 (Cohen and Chollet 2007), and all previously imposed sanctions were lifted. The war dragged on.
The Taliban in Afghanistan have also (re)emerged as a potent force challenging the writ of the government in Kabul. The US-led efforts to improve bilateral relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan were productive as the frequency of interaction between the top security officials increased. The Obama administration introduced a (re)think in the US regional policy through the Af-Pak Strategy. The strategy hyphenated Pakistan and Afghanistan – separate foreign policies were designed for both, but they were essentially treated as a similar challenge for the US.
The Af-Pak strategy further engaged Pakistan and Afghanistan in a trilateral framework to induce better bilateral ties in terms of political, economic and security cooperation (Ahmed 2010). Under the same strategy, the US allotted 400 million dollars to train and equip the Frontier Corps (FC), and further proposed a Pakistani counterinsurgency capability fund, under which an amount of three billion dollars was allocated over the next five years to train and equip Pakistan’s Army and paramilitary forces for counterinsurgency missions (Markey 2009: 2).
The US also significantly increased its troops in Afghanistan, enhanced drone strikes in Pakistan, and asked for a greater troop contribution from the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) members (Sultana and Aquil 2012).
Pakistan’s Army Chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani and General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, head of ISI visited Kabul (Sethi 2010). In similar context, the conclusion of the Afghan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement in July 2010 was an astounding success as it opened trade routes for both countries (Ahmed 2010). The similitude Pakistan shares with Afghanistan across the border has given it precedence to act as a peace-broker and this assertion was affirmed by the talks facilitated between Afghan government representatives, the Taliban, the US and China in Murree in 2015 by Pakistan (Boone 2015).
Initial years, primarily the Bush presidency, somewhat marked the treatment of Pakistan as a solution to the problem, but the later years such as the Obama administration, began to see it as part of the problem. The Trump administration has further exaggerated the country’s role as a cause of instability in the region. More recently, a high-level Afghan delegation visited Pakistan to deliberate about security concerns and counterterrorism measures (Gul 2018). The delegation met with Pakistani National Security Adviser Nasir Khan Janjua before holding crucial talks with the country’s military chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa (Ibid.). The meeting was held to consolidate intricacies of the latest bilateral engagement between Pakistan and Afghanistan: Afghanistan-Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity (APAPPS). The flourishing bilateral ties between Pakistan and Afghanistan symbolise the possibility of peace in the region, without necessarily the support of the US.
The repeated maligning and criticism by the US has deteriorated the alliance of trust and partnership between both nations, and this continues to be a leading cause of not being able to arrive at a coherent political framework to bring positive change in Afghanistan.
Recurrent Irritants in Pak US Relations
The most contemporary alliance between Pakistan and the US was to curb the international threat of terrorism. However, the course of time and engagement proved that the US shifted its stance and treatment towards Pakistan, its frontline ally in uprooting this menace. The establishment of US’ strategic depth with India, continued cordiality between Pakistan and China and the rampant disregard and repeated undermining of Pakistan’s sovereignty by Washington has accentuated the disengagement of Pak-US relations (Schaffer and Schaffer 2011).
Afghanistan has, unfortunately, become the sticking point in Pak-US relations. The partnership reaffirmed Pakistan’s fears of being encircled by India – as an anti-Pakistan and pro-India government took power in Afghanistan while replacing the Pakistan-friendly Taliban regime. Furthermore, the US, especially in the early Obama years, started to imply that Pakistan was playing a ‘dual/double’ game (Yusuf 2010), and was indirectly supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Haqqani network (FelbabBrown 2018). The US cites Pakistan’s inherent insecurity as an underlying factor to instil instability in Afghanistan and establish pro-Pakistan support in the country, while its elected government tilts towards India. Pakistan denies such claims.
Another fundamental factor that has considerably impacted relations is the developing strategic partnership between the US and India. The US has accorded a significantly more prestigious treatment to New Delhi by recognising it as the regional pivot in South Asia to serve its interests. This geostrategic recognition has a lot to do with its rising economic power. At the same time, Pakistan was increasingly seen as a perpetrator of terrorism in the region and an inherently unstable state (Constable 2017).
Quite naturally, there was disappointment in Islamabad because it has a number of unsettled issues with India such as the unresolved issue of the state of Jammu and Kashmir (Wirsing 2007). The US not only ignores Pakistan, it has tilted the regional balance in favour of India by offering it a civil Nuclear Deal irrespective of the fact that it is not a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) (Bajoria and Pan 2010). This unequal treatment has led to resentment within Pakistan. India has played its cards well. It not only has good relations with the US and has Russia and Israel as major defence partners; it has also developed cordial relations with the government in Kabul by investing more than two billion dollars in development aid.
The mistrust or distrust of the US policies in the region has been aggravated by a number of incidents. Some experts are of the view that the rise of anti-American sentiments within Pakistan witnessed an increase because of a proportional increase in drone strikes in its tribal areas bordering Afghanistan (Bruno 2010). The drone strikes have been justified by the US because they insisted that Pakistan lacked the will to take decisive action against the insurgents hiding in its territory that would randomly cross into Afghanistan to carry out raids against the forces of the Kabul government (Rashid 2008). The GoP retaliated by blocking the Ground Lines of Communications (GLOCs) for the NATO troops in Afghanistan until an apology was rendered.
In January 2011, a CIA contractor Raymond Davis killed two Pakistanis riding a motorcycle in Lahore. Under intense diplomatic pressure, the GoP had to allow him to leave the country after blood money had been paid to the kin. Pakistan was to face more humiliation, when US SEAL teams attacked and killed Osama bin Laden on 2 May 2011 in a daring raid on his compound in Abbottabad near its military academy and get away with it without its air defence sounding any alarms or its ground troops retaliating (Haqqani 2015). Another blatant disregard for Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty was the unprovoked attack on the Salala border checkpost in which 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed in cold blood by US helicopter gunships in November 2011 (Firdous 2011). These incidents depict the nadir of Pak-US relations.
Under the new Prime Minister Imran Khan, this relationship may well improve, if expectations are kept at a bare minimum and practical steps are taken to improve the situation. This may not be as easy as it may appear on paper. Donald Trump is not in a good mood and in an infamous 2018 New Year tweet criticised Pakistani leaders for being unworthy of the 33 billion dollars in aid and having given nothing in return ‘but lies and deceit’ (Chaudhary 2018). The Pakistan, in the face of being side-lined by the US, has all through its existence sought the support of China to balance its national interests, primarily to counter India’s expansionist designs. Trump administration has also halted the transfer of 300 million dollars to Pakistan under the Coalition Support Fund (CSF), citing ineffectiveness against terrorism as their rationale (Malik 2018). The US has not stood in the country’s favour to prevent it from being grey-listed under the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) requirements of implementing stringent measures against United Nations (UN) designated terror outfits, in order to choke their finances. The US has repeatedly echoed that the process followed and implemented by Pakistan is slow, leading to inevitability of the imposition of sanctions (Iqbal 2018).
Reoccurrence of the drone policy under President Trump (Luce and Naylor 2018) might agitate the Pakistani public, despite US claims that it solely targets the Taliban. The communication deficit between the two countries has deteriorated bilateral ties even further.
China has proven to be a considerably trustworthy ally of Pakistan and their cordial partnership over decades is evident in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a 60 billion dollars-plus economic engagement over infrastructure and energy (Zheng 2018). The US has always been wary of cooperation between the two, and believes that Pakistan’s role as a linchpin to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) would essentially distract it from its responsibilities to curb terrorism in the region, contain nuclear proliferation and bring a decisive end to the Afghan instability (Markey and West 2016).
Future of Pak-US Relations: Options for Pakistan
The new government in Pakistan made a declaration within days after assuming office that it would build ‘trustworthy’ ties with the US (Jorgic 2018). It is clearly understood that it is not in its best interest to antagonise the sole superpower of the world, particularly when the country is in a precarious economic condition. It is quite evident that it needs a 12 billion dollars bailout to survive a default, and the FATF is breathing down its neck to improve its anti-money laundering regime. The US Government is also insisting that Pakistan not allow anyone to operate inside Afghanistan from its territory. Of course, the prevailing situation demands that there be no change in the official policy that there should be an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process.
Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi took time out from the annual summit of the UN General Assembly in September 2018 to meet top US officials such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton, and to reassure them that Pakistan honestly wants to improve its relations, and would like to cooperate as much as possible in finding a solution for a peaceful Afghanistan. A similar message was given to the US President’s Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad as he went around the region to muster support for peace in Afghanistan. It appears that Khalilzad’s visit has already started paying dividends with the release of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in October 2018. Baradar is co-founder of the Taliban movement and had been in the custody of Pakistani authorities since 2010. The US is also actively engaging with the Taliban office in Qatar.
The parliamentary and presidential elections in Afghanistan may throw up a relatively new leadership. Although the Taliban have rejected the elections, have renewed their activities in the country and struck at places where they were least expected. The assassination of the governor of Kandahar and his police chief General Abdul Raziq, on the occasion of the visit of the new US NATO Commander General Scott Miller, shows that they have the upper hand against the government, but Pakistan should refrain from taking sides.
The US needs to realize that the benefits and productivity of Pak-US strategic engagements go far beyond intersecting on terrorism in Afghanistan. Pakistan holds a unique strategic place to bring considerable influence in the US-China relations, China-India relations and US-Iran relations.
Keeping in view the intractability of conflict in Afghanistan, a small achievement in the peace process, even in the form of cordial relations between states with stakes in Kabul, seems to be of a greater magnitude. In view of Pak-US relations, the conditional engagement should grow and foster a deeper strategic cooperation. Pakistan needs to prompt a (re)think in its foreign policy practices, and formulate a doctrine which clearly pursues its national interests without compromising to other states and their self-interest driven propagandas.
In order to secure its national interests, it is pragmatic to diversify options for support and alliances in the international political system. Therefore, keeping in view the record of relations with the US and its repeated record of abandoning the country at crucial times, Islamabad should form alliances and engagements with other states, such as China and Russia. Moreover, it should open avenues of engagement between US and other states leading to strengthening trilateral relations.
The country should also draw parameters for a foreign policy of a ‘developing’ nation where it should seek to rectify past mistakes and hold an unflinching stance on its sovereignty. The utility of Pak US ties remain pivotal in bringing peace and stability in the region, but it should also be understood that the latter no longer retains position of the sole influencer in the region, and that power dynamics are now shifting.

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