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Is agreement on Afghanistan possible?

By Imtiaz Gul

Friday Times, July 22, 2011

The recent spat between Pakistan and the US over "security assistance" was brinkmanship at best. Whoever advised the Obama administration to suspend payments to Pakistan most probably lacked knowledge of the ground realities. The move, not entirely rooted in realism, ignored a fundamental reality - the relationship rests on mutual dependence and a permanent break-down in an extremely volatile environment is not possible. The strident mood in Washington and the intimidating rhetoric also overlooked the socio-cultural context in which both countries are vying to safeguard their "national interests". 

The US decision to withhold $800 million in security assistance or compensation annoyed a majority of Pakistanis and demoralised the armed forces. One indicator of the public disapproval of the latest American pressure campaign is a poll on Dawn newspaper's website. The bulk of the visitors to this website are well-educated. Asked if "the US decision to suspend military aid to Pakistan (is) poorly timed given the developments in the Afghan war", as of midday on July 17 nearly 3,100 of 5,830 voters (54%) had said "Yes". For the tens of millions of people exposed on to Urdu media, the percentage of "Yes" would be much higher.

And that is what is being ignored in Washington's high-handed handling of Pakistan. It simply causes more animosity.

This provides a telling context to the debate on US-Pakistan relations and is food for thought for the two countries that have been at loggerheads since Osama bin Laden's killing on May 2, engaged in offensive rhetoric and mutual administrative retribution. 

Pakistan sent back 125 of the 129 US military trainers and almost three dozen British ones. It also put restrictions on visas for American nationals, because the military establishment suspects most of them are intelligence officials or private CIA security contractors. The Pakistani military reportedly also snubbed an American request for permanent presence of its military personnel at all airbases in the country.

In retaliation, the Obama administration withheld $800 million of the roughly $2 billion it owes Pakistan since December 2010. It made the release of funds conditional to the return of its trainers to Islamabad. 

The US administration has publicly called the suspended $800 million "security assistance", but Pakistanis insist it is largely reimbursements that Pakistan Army gets for deploying 150,000 troops on the Western border under a bilateral agreement with the US-led anti-terror coalition.

At the core of the problem is Pakistan's reluctance to meet the US demand for an all-out military offensive against Al Qaeda-linked groups, including the Haqqani network, that the US military officials believe are using the Afghan-Pakistan border region as a launching pad for insurgency in Afghanistan. 

As the Americans begin the gradual withdrawal from Afghanistan - to cut down the whopping $7 billion a month they are spending there - they are exploring the peace option for themselves but want Pakistan to fight against the anti-American militants in North Waziristan.

It is clearly a conflict between America's short-term objective to extricate most out of its troops in Afghanistan, and the Pakistani attempt to prevent further damage to its long-term interests in a war that has cost it more than 35,000 civilian and military casualties and severely hurt its economy. 

That is why ties between the two countries have been worsening. But mutual dependence will bring the allies back to the table. America's partial withdrawal from Afghanistan requires a friction-free engagement with Pakistan, and it cannot afford to vacate the space for Beijing which had jumped in to express solidarity with Islamabad following hostile statements coming out of Washington. Gen David Petraeus' trip to Rawalpindi on July 13 and Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha's parleys in Washington around the same time should also be seen in this context. A real breaking of ties was never on the cards.

The vibes after these high-profile visits are positive. Both sides are returning to senses and have realised the problems that might arise from a permanently hostile relationship. It obviously augurs well if both minimise mutual distrust and demonstrate greater consideration for each other's strategic interests.

For the time being, both countries seem to be back on track in this working, need-based relationship. But to prevent more ruptures, there is a need for substantial changes in policy.

What remains imperative, and a daunting challenge, is a quick rethinking of the security paradigm in Pakistan. This would mean changing the stance on India and on the non-Pashtun Afghans, and redefining relationships with non-state groups - both Afghan and Pakistani. This would certainly address some of the concerns that the India-Afghanistan nexus projects at multilateral forums. And the United States lives off this nexus as far as its dealings with Pakistan are concerned. 

Approaching a crisis-ridden environment with a self-destructive and outdated cold-war mindset as well as an obsolete strategy - tactical in nature at best - will most likely sink the country into further chaos and insecurity. Such a situation suits none of the stakeholders; neither Pakistan nor its military. Neither will a one-way demolition drive (by outsiders) entail any stability in the region. 

The writer heads the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk