The new US strategy for ‘Afghanistan and South Asia’ having created anxieties in this country, Islamabad has rescheduled both its Foreign Minister Khwaja Asif’s visit to Washington and US Assistant Secretary of State Alice Well’s trip to Islamabad to prepare its own policy response after consultations with its allies and friends. Meanwhile, the US forces commander in Afghanistan, General John W. Nicholson, did not help matters when he repeated the old allegation that “Afghan Taliban leadership is in Quetta and Peshawar” and it must stop. It made little sense for him to make such a public statement considering that he also said the issue of Taliban sanctuaries was being addressed “in private” by Pakistan and the US governments.
Few even in Washington are surprised at the dismay the new policy that assigns India an enhanced role in Afghanistan has caused in Islamabad. No less a person than the US special envoy for Afghanistan until last June, Laurel Miller, has said giving India a greater role is to “significantly antagonize” Pakistan as it “pushes the Pakistanis most sensitive buttons.” Upping the ante, nonetheless, is in neither side’s interest. Even as it aligns itself more closely with other big players in the region, China and Russia, Pakistan must stay engaged with the US. Unless it gets a bailout from its friends, China or Saudi Arabia, it would soon be heading towards the US-dominated IMF for a fresh loan to avoid default. On its part, the US can leverage its economic clout, but it also needs this country to resolve Afghanistan. A more urgent requirement is to keep its forces’ supply lines open that pass through this country. As a senior official affirmed in Washington, “the ground lines of communication in Pakistan are very important to the US. … So, we do count on those lines of communication.”
The way forward is for the two countries to work on convergences rather divergences of interests. They should address mutual complaints about terrorist safe havens through private conversations rather than public recriminations. Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa averred at a recent meeting of the Quadrilateral Counter-Terrorism Co-ordination Mechanism (comprising Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and China) in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, terrorism is a translational threat that could only be defeated through intelligence sharing and effective co-ordination for border management. That though calls for tackling the existing trust deficit between Islamabad and on the other side the Kabul government and the US. A positive development in that direction was a meeting General Bajwa held on the sidelines of the event with Afghan Chief of General Staff, General Sharif Yaftali, and aside for sharing worries, offered to form a ‘Pak-Afghan army working group’ to formulate joint recommendations for government-level discussions aimed at addressing mutual concerns, to which the Afghan CGS agreed. Hopefully, the US would support this process, and also encourage regional initiatives for a negotiated settlement of the endless Afghan conflict.