Gen Raheel Sharif is in DC, talking to the top civil-military leaders of America about Pakistan’s national security in the context of this region’s stability. The Americans have vital stakes in Afghanistan and have a vested interest in speaking to him directly rather than through the civilian government in Pakistan because they know the military calls the shots on such issues and the COAS calls the shots in the military.
This isn’t a new development because the US-Pak relationship has always had a compelling military dimension. In the 1950s and 60s, this was reflected in various defense pacts like CENTO and SEATO (Gen Ayub Khan and President Eisenhower were best friends). In recent decades the jihad against the Soviets (Gen Zia ul Haq and President Reagan) and Al-Qaeda/Taliban terrorism (Gen Pervez Musharraf and President Bush followed by Gen Ashfaq Kayani and CJCSC Admiral Mike Mullen) in Afghanistan have figured prominently. The difference between then and now, however, is that Pakistan’s national interests currently do not exactly coincide with those of America in the region. And this is the source of distrust and tension.
The issues for discussion in DC are three fold: Pak-US relations, Pak-India relations and Pak-Afghan relations. All are interlinked in critical ways. The US and Pakistan both want a stable and peaceful Afghanistan. Both want the Ghani government and the Taliban to smoke the peace pipe. But Pakistan’s efforts to initiate an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led reconciliation process have foundered on the rock of two hostile elements: the non-Pakhtun Afghans in the Ghani government and India. Both were singly and jointly responsible for sabotaging the second round of inter-Afghan talks some months ago by announcing the death of Mullah Umar and compelling the Taliban faction leading the talks to pull out, acquire a hard line posture and deal with the struggle for succession that ensued. The Afghan Army and Intel are also sheltering Pak Taliban in the North-East of Afghanistan while the Indians have been sponsoring terrorism in FATA, Karachi and Balochistan. Talk of any quid pro-quo with either Kabul (we’ll rein in the Haqqani network and you coral the Mullah Fazlullah Taliban) or New Delhi (we won’t sponsor jihad in Kashmir and you stop RAW from destabilizing us) has not progressed because of mutual distrust and hostility. Surely, the Americans can play a significant role in addressing such concerns by acting as interlocutors and facilitators between Pakistan and India and Pakistan and Afghanistan. Surely, it is time for the Americans to “do more” instead of spending over $ 10 billion a year in Afghanistan without achieving any worthwhile results. Surely, they can shore up Pakistan’s anti-Taliban operations by coughing up at least a billion a year!
General Sharif will also try and convince the Americans that it is India and not Pakistan that is keeping the border hot and forestalling confidence building talks. The Pakistani army has its hands full dealing with internal terrorism. It has put a lid on the lashkars and jihadis and stopped them from fomenting trouble in Kashmir. It doesn’t serve their interests to keep a significant chunk of the army on border duty. It is India under PM Modi that wants to sow distrust between Islamabad and President Ghani in Afghanistan so that Kabul is once again nudged in the direction of New Delhi and becomes dependent on it as it was in the time of President Karzai who remains a staunch Indian ally.
The Americans will also be keenly interested to determine if General Sharif has any domestic political ambitions that could destabilize Pakistan and derail their common objectives in the region. Surely they are updated on civil-military tensions and the national media’s elevation of General Sharif as a national hero of sorts as a counter-weight to the lumbering prime minister. Of late, there has been much idle speculation on this count, especially since the fateful ISPR statement that provoked the government to issue a counter statement of its own. Washington will also be interested to know if General Sharif is interested in an extension in tenure and whether the US can play any role in stressing continuity of strategic policy.
Is the PMLN government wary of General Sharif’s attempts to chart a direct hot line with both America and Saudi Arabia? Admittedly, there are some voices in the PM’s secretariat that are raising concerns. But they shouldn’t. The PM and COAS have a fairly good working relationship. The COAS could have fished in troubled waters last year during Imran Khan’s “dharna” but he didn’t. The PM could have stopped him from cleaning up Karachi because of political compulsions, but he didn’t. The COAS took the load off the PM when he went into FATA all guns blazing and gave a shut-up call to Doubting-Thomases like Imran Khan and the Islamists. This helped the PM forge a national consensus behind the war against the Taliban.
Still, it would help if the ISPR could learn a bit about the theory of diminishing returns and act accordingly.