Pakistan’s relations with the US are at a generational crossroads

The Trump administration is on the verge of deciding upon long-term US objectives in Afghanistan, writes Tom Hussain

US marines returned to Afghanistan's volatile Helmand province on April 29, 2017, the first to be deployed in the war-torn country since Nato forces ended their combat role in 2014. Behrouz Mehri / AFP
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

The Trump administration is on the verge of deciding upon long-term US objectives in Afghanistan and all the signs point to complications for Pakistan. The mood in Washington was aptly summed up for me by a well-placed source there, in a recent private conversation: “Virtually everyone in DC thinks Pakistan is the reason why America has lost in Afghanistan.”

This refers to Pakistan’s special relationship with the Afghan Taliban. The Afghan government is dominated by long-standing enemies of Pakistan who are allied with India. Pakistan cannot afford hostile borders on its eastern and western flanks, so it is a geostrategic imperative for Pakistan to back the Taliban. The cost to US interests has been high since 2015, when international forces ceded responsibility for the war to the Afghan government. The outcome has been a disastrous loss of territory to the Taliban. To avert the fall of several cities, the US military had to retake control of military planning and redeploy heavy bombers last year.

Despite that, the amount of territory controlled or contested by the Taliban leapt from 28 per cent to 43 per cent in 2016. In other words, the Afghan government does not control about half of the country and the situation is bound to deteriorate. Corruption and incompetence are words often used to describe the national unity government, an oxymoron that threatens to be torn apart within the year by bickering.

Against that backdrop, the outcome of ongoing negotiations led by US national security adviser HR McMaster and Ishaq Dar, Pakistan’s finance minister, could prove historic. Nusrat Javeed, a respected geopolitical analyst, says they are as important as the 1980 conversation that established the US-Pakistan alliance against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the September 2001 phone call that prompted Pakistan to abandon its support for the Taliban.

Mr McMaster and Gen Jim Mattis, secretary of defence, have been polite but clear. They are offering Pakistan a deal it can’t refuse: cooperate and we’ll make it worth your while, resist and we will make your relationship with the Taliban an expensive proposition.

The American generals are proffering carrot before stick. Addressing Pakistani complaints, US forces have prosecuted a major military operation against combined ISIL-Pakistani Taliban forces encamped along the Afghan border with Pakistan, headlined by the dropping of the “Mother of All Bombs” last month.

Immediately after, Gen McMaster contacted Mr Dar by phone. On a tour of the region that followed, he made his first public criticism while in Kabul, calling on Pakistan to abandon proxy war in favour of diplomacy. The next day, he was in Islamabad and met with Mr Dar. They met again in Washington last week.

Pakistan’s biggest weakness is its economy. It is in the second year of a recovery that began with the defeat of the Pakistani Taliban in 2015 and confidence is brimming because China is financing a $55 billion infrastructure development programme. However, Pakistan is struggling with its balance of payments and is reliant on international support and receptive markets to maintain financial stability.

The US has used this as a pressure point in the past, delaying reimbursements for the cost of counter-terrorism operations and partially withholding military funding because of Pakistan’s failure to rein in the Haqqani Network faction of the Afghan Taliban. Many in Congress would support limited financial sanctions.

How far is the Trump administration prepared to go in incentivising or penalising Pakistan? It can’t offer Pakistan what it really wants – a veto on Afghanistan – and if it were to squeeze too much, China would intervene to protect its investments.

Either way, I doubt US pressure on Pakistan will have the desired effect on the Taliban. Its territorial gains in Afghanistan and newfound benefactors in Iran and Russia are making the group less reliant on havens in Pakistan. On Thursday, the Taliban announced it would both fight and talk this year. As ever, it is playing for time and it probably has more than the US does.

Tom Hussain is a journalist and political analyst in Islamabad