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Odd trio: Pakistan-US-Afghanistan

Relationship between Pakistan-US-Afghanistan is of an odd trio. During the NATO summit in Warsaw on July 09, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani accused Pakistan of continuing to distinguish between ‘good and bad terrorists’. “Our regional initiatives with our neighbours are beginning to yield significant cooperative dividends … with the exception of Pakistan,” Ghani said. “Pakistan’s dangerous distinction between good and bad terrorists is being maintained in practice,” he claimed. Elaborating the nature of afghan conflict, he said: “it is multi-dimensional, ranging from al Qaeda and Da’ish to terrorist groups with Central Asian, Chinese, and Russian origins, to Pakistani groups classified as terrorists by Pakistan and Afghan Taliban groups.”  Pakistan has expressed disappointment over these remarks. “It is unfortunate that Afghan leaders continue to make hostile statements and blame Pakistan… However, since we have a genuine interest in seeing peace in Afghanistan, Pakistan will continue to make every effort to help…We also expect cooperation of the Afghan government in our fight against terrorism through effective border management and denying sanctuaries to anti-Pakistan terrorists from TTP”, a foreign office statement said.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced that allies have promised to contribute around $1 billion a year over the next three years in partial funding to Afghan military. “… that’s the reason we are ready to stay beyond 2016,” Stoltenberg said NATO’s mission will continue [training] into 2017 with 12,000 NATO and US troops.

US mission commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, has acknowledged that Afghan forces were suffering rising levels of battlefield casualties this year.  “This year, we’re seeing more tactical success (by the Afghans) on the battlefield but more casualties as well,” Nicholson said. Over 5,000 forces in Afghanistan were killed and more than 14,000 were wounded in 2015. Nicholson praised Afghan forces for being able to recruit new fighters and carry on, despite the casualty rates. President Barack Obama has scrapped plans to slash the number of US forces to 5,500 troops from 9,800 before he leaves office, citing precarious security in Afghanistan. Obama now plans to leave around 8,400 US troops.

Eid message and a formal statement attributed to Taliban leader has reiterated that the deaths of Mullah Omar and Mullah Mansoor had not weakened the insurgency; implying that neither his nor his successor(s) death would weaken it. He urged the US to end Afghan ‘occupation’. “We condemn this effort of prolonging this war and occupation and remind the Americans that the Afghan nation has bravely faced all your might over the past 15 years,” Haibatullah said. “You are not going to be the winner,” he added. “If you [Americans] begin to see Afghanistan as an equal country and recognise the Islamic Emirate as a military, political and peaceful force demanding its legitimate rights and also take into consideration the demands of this valiant nation, you shall be saved from a lot of expenditure and losses,” he stated. Taliban have “kept political doors open to the world”, he added. Haibatullah is incrementally consolidating his position and these articulations indicate that there would be no change in Taliban’s tactical policy under the new leader.

Attempt by the Afghan government to veer away Hizb-e-Islami (HI) has entered an interesting phase. HI has pledged not to attack Afghan soldiers except in self-defence. However, as under the new arrangement, American and Afghan troops are likely to carry out more and more joint operations, offer by HI may not result in significant reduction in violence.

Pervious weeks have witnessed some unilateral American actions which poured chilled water on the Pakistan-US relations. Droning of Mullah Akhtar Mansour, in an otherwise no go area for drones; scuttling of sale of eight F-16s to Pakistan under Indian pressure; conditioning the inflow of US$ 300 with action against Haqqanis; and audacious effort to make India an NSG member while out rightly blocking Pakistan’s entry had sufficient cumulative impact to make some analysts jump to conclusion that Pakistan-US relationship were in for a replication of 1990s era. Pakistan’s resistance and reaction to these American actions to contain Pakistan successfully sent back the message that Pakistan could revert back to alternative options.

Delegation level visit of US Senators Lindsey Graham, Benjamin Sasse, Joe Donnelly and John McCain, Chairman of the US Senate Armed Services Committee to Pakistan was a fence-mending effort. Delegation visited Afghanistan as well. Gaps between John McCain’s articulation in Islamabad and Kabul were interesting.  After “excellent meeting” with Pakistani foreign ministry officials, he  told the Afghan Chief Executive Dr Abdullah Abdullah in Kabul on July 04 that he had pushed the Pakistani leaders to take practical steps against Haqqani Network. “The US forces and the country will continue to support the Afghans until the end of war,” senator McCain said.

While in Pakistan, Adviser to PM on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz had briefed the US delegation about faltering peace talks to end the civil war in Afghanistan. “No country had as much vital stakes in the success of these joint efforts, as Pakistan”. Adviser recounted Pakistan’s earnest efforts, particularly during the past few months, to keep the Pakistan-US partnership on track. Delegation was also on briefed the vital issues of: Pak-Afghan border management; repatriation of Afghan refugees; and Afghan peace and reconciliation process. It was reiterated that Pakistan remains committed to the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) process.

McCain is known for keeping his feet in both boats when it comes to Pakistan-India relations. Earlier in a reaction to the US government’s approval of sale of eight F-16 to Pakistan McCain had urged the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on February 26, to hold a hearing on this sale. He opined that a hearing would help senators decide what to do about the proposed sale, noting that he was himself very “conflicted.” McCain was concerned about the timing of the Obama administration’s decision to approve the sale and potential consequences for US relations with India! “I would rather have seen it kicked over into the next administration,” McCain said.

The government approval of deal drew immediate criticism from India; and Pentagon aptly responded: “F-16 sale to Pakistan should not be of concern to India”. However, the spoiler action followed soon after. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker allowed the Obama administration to proceed with the deal, but said he would not approve using US funds to pay for the planes through the foreign military financing programme. Corker told Secretary of State John Kerry in a letter that he was concerned about Pakistan’s ties to the Haqqani network. Crocker did it, apparently single handily and the deal was scuttled. He had exploited Pakistan’s economic vulnerability of being unable to pay the full cost. It is hard to digest that one odd cranky senator could halt the mighty wheels of the Pentagon and State Department. There must be more to it.

Senators visited Pakistan in the backdrop of scepticism in certain US quarters that Islamabad was reluctant to go after all militant groups, particularly the Haqqani network, which is blamed for most deadliest attacks against US forces in Afghanistan. To dispel this impression Pakistan, for the first time, took these visitors to North Waziristan to get a first-hand account of its efforts. “I was very impressed with the progress,” said McCain. “I see us working together in confronting a common challenge and these kinds of meetings are very helpful”, McCain added.

Senators recognized the need for greater contact between Pakistan and the US and to work together to address the challenges. Common problem with such delegations is that they come with a fixated mind-set, do a good talk, disregard what Pakistani side tells them and go back with the same mind-set they came with. The relationship between the trio is complex, fast- moving, fragile and gains made during one day often go down the drain the next day.











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