As US hosts Bajwa, foreign policy analysts bat for ‘pragmatic’ US-Pak engagement | World News - Hindustan Times

As US hosts Bajwa, foreign policy analysts bat for ‘pragmatic’ US-Pak engagement

Oct 07, 2022 07:16 PM IST

The Pakistan Study Group's report recognises the divergences between Pakistan and the US and says it may be time to recognise that “Pakistan cannot be the close ally of yesteryears”

Washington: Even as the Pentagon hosted visiting Pakistan’s army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa in Washington DC on Tuesday, a week after Secretary of State Antony Blinken had official engagements with Pakistan’s foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the Pakistan Study Group — a grouping of former American officials with deep ties to Islamabad and Rawalpindi and DC think-tankers who work on Pakistan - has recommended “developing a framework for pragmatic engagement” between the two countries.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J Austin (L) and Gen Bajwa. (Twitter/@SecDef) PREMIUM
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J Austin (L) and Gen Bajwa. (Twitter/@SecDef)

In its report, the group, which has members with ties to both governments, says that “as one of the world’s most populous, majority Muslim countries, sitting at the crossroads of South, Central, and West Asia, and armed with nuclear weapons, Pakistan cannot and should not be ignored, isolated, or marginalized”.

The report, titled U.S. Re-Engagement with Pakistan: Ideas for Reviving an Important Relationship recognises the divergences between Pakistan and the United States (US) and says it may be time to recognise that “Pakistan cannot be the close ally of yesteryears”.

While specifically highlighting differences on Afghanistan, China and India, the group claims that the two countries share “mutual interests in seeking stability in the region, combatting the problem of extremism, and averting armed conflict in nuclear South Asia”. “Relations need not be close or broadly based to achieve the goals sought by each side.”

On India-Pakistan ties, the group says that expecting Pakistan to give up its position on Kashmir would be “crossing a redline”. While it appreciates the American approach of dehyphenating ties, it asks the US to “maintain robust engagement with each country based on respective merits yet be modest about its ability to bridge what divides them”.

Timing of the report

The members of the study group include Ryan Crocker and Cameron Munter, former US ambassadors to Pakistan, and Robin Raphel, a former diplomat known for her strong pro-Pakistani attitude and anti-India tilt in the 1990s when she was dealing with South Asia.

Among the thinktankers in the group are the former Pakistani ambassador to the US and now director of the South and Central Asia programme at Hudson Institute, Husain Haqqani, who has been critical of the Pakistani army establishment and is now an independent scholar; Toby Dalton of the nuclear policy programme at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Elizabeth Threlkeld of Stimson Center; Uzair Younus and Harlan K Ullman of the Atlantic Council; and Marvin Weinbaum of the Middle East Institute.

The report comes at a time when there is renewed engagement between Washington DC and Islamabad after a period of chill in the final years of the American war in Afghanistan under the Donald Trump presidency, and then with the Taliban takeover of Kabul, under the Joe Biden presidency.

American leaders — both in the executive and legislative branches — had explicitly called out Pakistan’s duplicity in Afghanistan, where it both pretended to be a partner in American efforts and supported the Taliban. Pakistan’s terror exporting ways have become widely recognised in DC’s political circles and strategic community. Ties nosedived further during Imran Khan’s prime ministership, with Biden refusing to engage with the Pakistani leadership and Khan accusing the US of engineering his ouster, an allegation that America denied firmly.

But ever since the change in regime in Islamabad with the election of the Shehbaz Sharif government — which was enabled by Bajwa reading the riot act to Imran Khan as he attempted to block a parliamentary vote — ties have warmed up. The strategic grapevine in DC is also rife with speculation that there has been counter-terror collaboration between the two security establishments, with whispers of Pakistani role in the killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul. The US also announced a $450 million sustainment package for F-16s for Pakistan and high-level exchanges have resumed.

At an event during his visit to Washington DC last week, external affairs minister S Jaishankar had said that the US must weigh the costs of its relationship with Pakistan and suggested it had not served the interests of either country. He also slammed the US’s F16 package for Pakistan and claimed that the rationale provided - that it was for counterterrorism purposes — did not fool anyone. Blinken had, in a subsequent press conference, said Pakistan faced real terrorism threats and named Islamic State-Khorasan, TTP and al-Qaeda as posing a threat to Pakistan.

The divergent American and Pakistani stories

In its report, the Pakistan Study Group traces the evolution of the relationship and acknowledges the recent dip in ties. “Most at issue among policy makers in both countries in recent decades has been Pakistan’s poorly veiled support for the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, backing for jihadi groups targeting Kashmir, close embrace of China, and expanding nuclear arsenal.”

It also points to the failure of American policy in changing Pakistan’s behaviour, saying that “neither the award of military and civilian aid, or the cutoff of aid” has been able to change “Pakistan’s existing national security paradigm and policies framed by its security establishment”.

Putting forth the Pakistani perspective on the relationship, the report claims that Pakistan felt it had not got a fair deal for its support to the US during the Cold War, the Afghan jihad of the 1980s against the Soviets and post-9/11 collaboration. “Pakistan complains that Washington does not respect its contribution or fully appreciate its security threats, regional concerns, and aspirations.”

Pakistan, according to the group, believes that “jihadist terrorism owes its existence to a joint cold war program gone awry” and the US needs to help Pakistan deal with the issue “on Islamabad’s terms and on Pakistan’s timelines”. The US has not been consistent in the Pakistani worldview.

The report says that Pakistan would “be willing to be an American strategic ally only if the U.S. understood and attended to its concerns about India’s influence in the region and Pakistan’s desire or even right to emerge as the pre-eminent power in its neighborhood.”

Laying out the American perspective and response, the report says that the US believes Pakistan has always pursued its own agenda, which often collides with American interests.

“Yet it repeatedly seeks U.S. money and arms without keeping its commitments. The list of American grievances is long, not least that Pakistan undertook a nuclear program while promising the U.S. that it would refrain from building a weapon.”

The US believes, according to the report’s authors, that while it may have helped and trained the mujahideens, it was Pakistan’s decision that kept these militants “well-armed and sufficiently funded” even after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989” and that Pakistan’s crackdown on terrorist groups even after 9/11 has been “half-hearted” at best.

Framework for “modest” ties

The report claims that among the changes in the past decade affecting US-Pakistan ties are the US-India “entente” and the potential for “peer rivalry” between US and China. Afghanistan and the “the blowback of Pakistan’s support of militancy in Indian-controlled Kashmir” have also offered lessons to Pakistan, it claims, suggesting that as geostrategic competition heats up, it is time for a more “sustainable relationship”.

The new relationship should be “modest and pragmatic”, says the report, based on an understanding on five principles.

One, US and Pakistan will see Afghanistan differently but can cooperate in maintaining peace. Two, attitudes towards India in Pakistan will “at best, change slowly”. Three, public opinion in both the US and Pakistan acts as constraints. Four, the US can do little to change Pakistan’s “overall strategic calculus”. And finally, the two countries have different views on China.

But without “exaggerated expectations”, the report authors make a pitch to deepen ties.

It suggests that “walking away from the region” has not worked out well for American interests and a policy of “benign neglect” hasn’t worked. “Over the decade of the 1990s, Al Qaeda emerged with Pakistan’s assistance as a global terrorist threat, the subcontinent went nuclear, and India and Pakistan engaged in armed conflict that could be resolved only through U.S. reengagement as mediator.”

This is where the report says it is time to recognise that Pakistan “cannot be the close ally of yesteryears” but is still an important country that is willing to cooperate with the US in select areas. It then narrows down to specific areas where this can happen.

Proposed areas of cooperation

On security, the report says that while the US has long doubted Pakistan’s commitment to act against militant extremist groups that operate from its soil, “especially those that focus on India and Afghanistan”, they have cooperated in sharing intelligence on al-Qaeda, Islamic State, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, and Tehreek-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi. “The need for counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan has if anything increased with the loss of intelligence assets following the U.S. military withdrawal from the region.” It claims that the fear of international isolation and economic consequences has resulted in some actions against groups. The safety of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is also of American interest.

On China, the report says that Pakistan’s ties with China are the “principal lens” through which Washington DC is now viewing Islamabad. Here, it says that both US and Pakistan have a “desire to ensure Pakistan maintains a degree of sovereign autonomy over its actions”. It however asks the US not to have a zero sum view of Pakistan-China ties but to help improve Pakistan’s bargaining power vis-à-vis China. For this, it asks the US to strengthen pro-US constituencies, including by building Pakistan’s capacity for “for transparency and compliance when it comes to loans like those under CPEC”.

On India-Pakistan ties, the report says that as US equities with Delhi increase, Pakistan has grown apprehensive as it views ties with India as a zero-sum game. It says that while it should be clear that the US does not see itself as a mediator on Kashmir, the 2019 Pulwama-Balakot crisis and 2022 “accidental missile strike” have shown that managing an India-Pakistan crisis, and preventing escalation remain a key American interest. The report says that Kashmir is an “emotive” issue for Pakistan, and expecting it to give up its position would be crossing a “redline” but adds that “a major terrorist attack in India blamed on Pakistan-based militants – or some other type of precipitating event – could cause a wider conflict that has the potential to escalate to use of nuclear weapons”. This requires the US to “maintain robust engagement with each country based on respective merits yet be modest about its ability to bridge what divides them”.

On the economy, with Pakistan facing a crisis, the report claims that the Sharif government is attempting structural reforms and calls on the US to nudge an expansion in private sector and commercial ties and asks Washington to continue providing Economic Support Funds and other relevant funding mechanisms. In light of floods in Pakistan, it asks the US to step up assistance in the humanitarian domain, disaster management, improving water management, tackling air pollution, building climate resilience and clean energy.

On technology, the report points to the role of the Pakistani-American diaspora in Silicon Valley in providing access to capital and expertise to Pakistan’s tech sector and bats for closer ties.

On democracy and human rights, the report acknowledges that Pakistan has a “long history of curbing dissent, of impeding the work of civil society organizations, and of suppressing media freedoms” and this trend has only worsened. It asks the US to continue its support for Pakistan’s civil society, media and press, academia, and policy world.

Final recommendations

In its final set of recommendations, the report's authors reiterate it is not in the American interest to “isolate Pakistan or irreparably breach the relationship” and engagement with the Pakistani military should continue, “even in the absence of large-scale military aid and transfer of equipment”.

It claims that with the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, “the value of intelligence sharing to combat terrorism has grown”. This will require the US will to “keep an eye on terrorist groups, both domestic and global”, and Pakistan to “less selectively” address the threats posed by its militant extremist groups.

In a paragraph on the issue of terrorism, the report says, “The U.S. must continue efforts, including at multilateral forums, to remind Pakistan about the need to act against terrorist groups and individuals on its soil. Pakistan has long insisted that terrorist groups such as Jaish-e-Muhammad or Lashkar-e-Taiba are too powerful and pervasive for the military establishment to challenge easily and that it needs time to act against them. The U.S. should work behind the scenes and in subtle ways pressure Pakistan to continue to crack down on these groups within its territory. Gulf Arab countries, too, must be encouraged to pressure Pakistan in changing its direction.”

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