Pakistan responded sternly to the safe havens allegations in President Donald Trump’s statement and the taunt of receiving ‘billions and billions’ of dollars, besides raising alarm over the American idea of giving India a bigger role not only in Afghanistan, but the broader region. Its harsh tone for the US was not limited to government response; the already strong anti-American sentiment in society further intensified with his speech.
The official response has continued to evolve since President Trump announced the policy for Afghanistan and South Asia with deliberations taking place at various levels: the federal cabinet, the National Security Committee, which met twice in a week’s time, and both houses of Parliament. The postponement of Khawaja Asif’s maiden visit to Washington as foreign minister and a trip by US Acting Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia and Acting Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Amb Alice Wells, after the Pakistan government refused to receive her, were, however, the strongest messages conveyed to the US about anger here over the new policy.
Foreign Minister Asif is, furthermore, planning to visit China, Russia, and Turkey for consultations on the situation arising out of the new policy. But, importantly, the purpose of the planned regional outreach is to send a message to the US that Pakistan can ally with the other blocs in the region, with which it already has very close relations, in case it (the US) does not mend its attitude towards Pakistan.
Pakistan may have tools that it could wield. However, the postponement of the bilateral visits and the tone of discussions hinted towards an impending rupture in ties
Pakistan, in fact, may have an array of tools and leverages at its disposal that it could wield. However, the postponement of the bilateral visits and the tone of discussions in Pakistan’s power echelons hinted towards an impending rupture in ties or people favouring disengagement with the US. This mood was noted by former interior minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf’s Shah Mehmood Qureshi, both of whom while taking part in the National Assembly debate on US policy wisely cautioned against disengagement. “Disengagement is not an option. We have to argue logically and articulate our case,” Qureshi said in the National Assembly.
The US policy may be flawed. America could truly be a bully. Trump could have little consideration for a longstanding bilateral relationship and norms of diplomatic engagement. American influence in global politics in general and in this region in particular may be waning. All these assessments may be correct, but how do you go about ending a stalemate in our ties after the announcement of the new US policy? Will one engage with other countries with interests in Afghanistan and stakes in peace and stability for the region. Or is the answer to disengage? Vent?
Indeed, expressing anger conveys to others that we are agitated and it is important to listen to us and address our reservations. The impulse to circle the wagons is strong and understandable. But, what is being witnessed in Pakistan these days is not new. It is part of a familiar pattern that emerges when problems surface with the US as we have seen in the recent past. The incidents of Salala and OBL were followed by a similar exercise and the post-Salala parliamentary review produced elaborate guidelines for the conduct of relations with the US. One lesson from the parliamentary review after Salala is to never overplay your hand.
There has to be acknowledgment that something is missing in our strategy because of which we have not been able to establish the relationship on a firm footing and remain mired in the same problems. Both sides instead have the tendency to gloss over the problems that are at the core of their troubled relations because of tactical expediencies.
Therefore, any first step towards an enduring engagement should be a frank and candid discussion on the controversy about safe havens and any other irritants. The expediencies of either side, no matter how pressing, should not blinker perspective. Pakistan’s claim is that it had eradicated any terrorist networks that had existed on its soil. It should, therefore, transparently seek any US proof to its claim of sanctuaries and rebut them publicly. The problems arise when there is a lack of transparency in the dialogue and there is undoubtedly a lot of opacity in Pak-US relations.
At the same time, both sides should remove any misconceptions that coercive diplomacy or pressure tactics would compel the other side to revisit their policies. Both sides have their own interests, which they would not compromise, and dialogue is the only way forward to reach a common point.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad and can be reached at email@example.com