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Where is the “Reset”?

Where is the “Reset”?

 

“Reset” is an American way to cover up a stupidity under the garb of ambiguous misnomer without admitting its failure. Pakistan and the US are following divergent interests in the region; hence, space for any meaningful course corrections to achieve convergence of interests is rather limited. The US needs Pakistan to sustain its presence in Afghanistan. With President Trump’s folly of walking away from Iran nuclear deal, availability of alternative supply route to Afghanistan via Iran has become a pipedream for American leadership. Thus the US does not want to lose Pakistan in totality.

Nonetheless, Pakistan cannot continue cosying up with the US as long as it continues to shift Pakistan-India strategic balance in latter’s favour. While US officials tried to keep the meetings focused on Afghanistan, Pakistan pointed out American favouritism toward India and bias against their country. And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went straight to New Delhi to sign another strategic agreement.

In run up to Pompeo’s arrival Pakistani officials and commentators were raging about the sanctions, slashing of US$ 300 million of reimbursements and referring to the fiasco of maiden phone call between Pompeo and Prime Minster Imran Khan that had led to an ugly spat between the two sides. It was opined that had the US been serious in breaking the deadlock, it would not have announced the aid cancelation just on the eve of Pompeo’s trip and the call matter also wouldn’t have been flared so much.

Former Chief Spy and current Secretary of State is well documented for his hawkish leanings towards Pakistan, which are amply reinforced by his boss’s dislike for the country. He undertook the visit with a pinch of salt, and hence was under no pressure to rollout any meaningful initiative for course correction, and he did not. At best the two sides may have reached an understanding to arrest further downslide, if so, this in itself is no meagre achievement. One has to wait and see American inclinations in coming days to draw some conclusions. Apparently there are no visible signs of outright improvement in bilateral relations.

During recent weeks, American posturing towards Pakistan had become more aggressive rather than reconciliatory: the US went out of the way for Pakistan’s grey listing in Financial Action Task Force (FATF); raised questions about funding from IMF; demanding respecting American sanctions on Iran; appointed special forces expert to command occupation forces in Afghanistan; cut military and economic aid to Pakistan; provide space to India to gain influence in Afghanistan; and appointed a known hawk towards Pakistan Zalmay Khalilzad as special advisor for Afghanistan. So there were no indicators of a reset. Where is the reset?  Where are the details of barter, leading to so called reset?

Especially, Prime Minister’s Defence Day declaration that “We’ll never again fight someone else’s war” quashes the impression that Pakistan promised something to American side in exchange for the touted reset. Moreover, Imran Khan has always been opposed to the open-ended presence of the US forces in Afghanistan and at the same time he views the Afghan Taliban insurgency as a legitimate movement against foreign occupation forces. He is not likely to change that stance.

Pakistan-America relationship has very complex dynamics. Two sides need to stay as allies but behave like adversaries. ‘Frenemy’, ‘magnificent delusion’ etc. are some of negative tags used to describe this relationship. Practically, not much is left in the partnership wrecked by two-way allegations of ‘double game’ and ‘deceit’.

There are contradictions on the way two sides projected the achievements. On cancelation of $300 million reimbursement, Foreign Minister Mahmood Qureshi said he did not raise the issue with Pompeo since the PTI government wanted to go beyond the policy of “give and take”. “The honourable and respectable nations do not talk and raise such matters,” the foreign minister said. Reportedly, Pompeo and Prime Minister Imran discussed Afghan peace process and blockage of $300 million in Coalition Support Fund (CSF) among other matters of mutual interest. Pompeo told reporters that the Islamabad government had been told in advance the sanctions were coming and why. “The rationale for them not getting the money is very clear,” he said. “It’s that we haven’t seen the progress that we need to see from them.”

Foreign Minister Qureshi reported ‘forward movement’ in talks, insisting there was no demand of ‘do more’ from Washington. However, the US embassy issued a statement while Qureshi was busy addressing the news conference, saying, “In all of his meetings, Secretary Pompeo emphasised the important role Pakistan could play in bringing about a negotiated peace in Afghanistan, and conveyed the need for Pakistan to take sustained and decisive measures against terrorists and militants threatening regional peace and stability.” Insiders say the tone, nevertheless, was not harsh compared to recent statements by some other US officials.

Pompeo also held out the possibility that military aid could be restored under the right circumstances. “We were providing these resources when it made sense for the United States because the partnership was in a place where the actions of our two countries made sense to do that,” he said. “If that arises again, I’m confident we’ll present to the president the rationale for that.” Carrot and stick beautifully tossed in unison!

Before leaving for India, Pompeo told American journalists that he had come to Pakistan to reset the relationship “between our two countries across a broad spectrum – economic, business, and commercial, the work that we all know that we need to do to try and develop a peaceful resolution in Afghanistan, which benefits certainly Afghanistan but also the United States and Pakistan”. “And I’m hopeful that the foundation that we laid today will set the conditions for continued success as we start to move forward,” Pompeo added. Secretary Pompeo conveyed the desire of the US Administration to work with Pakistan to achieve the common objectives of peace and stability in Afghanistan and the region.

American officials continue to insist that Pakistan is sheltering anti-Afghan militants. Pakistan has repeatedly denied the charge.  Afghan officials had accused Pakistan just last month of sending fighters to attack Ghazni which was besieged by Taliban forces for four days. There were widespread reports of wounded and dead fighters returning to Pakistan for treatment or burial. Pakistani officials commented that victims could have been Pakistani labourers or others caught up in the violence.

Almost all US military aid has been stopped and only a trickle of civilian aid is now coming to Pakistan. The interaction between the two countries has been reduced to a low official level though some of military-to-military contacts may still have survived. While the illusion of any strategic convergence has been absent for long, even a transactional relationship is hard to maintain. Pakistan is growing its strategic and economic ties with China. American officials regularly question Beijing’s strategic stakes in CPEC. The recent warning by Pompeo against any IMF bailout for Pakistan as it could help the latter pay off its Chinese debt indicates that Washington is willing to go to any extent to stifle Pakistan financially as part of its pressure tactics.

President Donald Trump’s New Year tweet accusing Pakistan of lying and being deceitful, and his South Asia policy, has brought Pakistan-US ties to a new low. Washington’s demand for unquestionable compliance is unacceptable to Pakistan. Especially with new government in place, Trump’s policy of using pressure tactics to bring Pakistan to its knees is not likely to work. Threatening messages and humiliating tweets make it more difficult for Islamabad to cooperate with Washington. Yet a complete breakup is not a choice for either side, at least for now.

The US has laid down its rules that require Pakistan to ‘do more’ in fighting terrorism on its soil, bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table and force the insurgents to work with the Kabul government. Pakistan is not likely to deliver on any of these, as it believes that it has already done enough with regard to first demand and does not have singular responsibility with regard to the remaining two, as these are shared objectives. Pakistan also believes that all its earlier initiatives for negotiations were purposefully sabotaged by the US. And that despite ostensibly vying for peace in Afghanistan, the US wants to keep the pot boiling to justify stationing of its 10-15000 troops in Afghanistan for other undisclosed strategic objectives, including keeping a watch on Pakistan’s nuclear programme.

There is a growing realisation within the US administration that the war in Afghanistan cannot be won through military means, and the only way out of the crisis is a negotiated political settlement. Yet, there has not been any significant US initiative or a clear strategy to start meaningful peace talks. Recently, the US established informal contacts with Afghan Taliban officials based in Qatar, but that has not delivered much. Appointment of Zalmay Khalilzad as special US envoy to Afghanistan also raises questions about the seriousness of the Trump administration to find a political solution to the Afghan conflict. As always, Taliban are willing to directly engage with the US, without showing flexibility on their stance of not talking to the Kabul government. Taliban’s recent military successes have intensified their intransigence. Another factor boosting the Taliban’s confidence is that they are gaining greater international recognition.

Pompeo, who was accompanied by Chairman of Joint Chief of Staff General Joseph Dunford and Trump’s special envoy Zalamay Khalilzad, first held talks with the foreign minister and then met with Prime Minister Imran Khan. The meeting at the Prime Minister Office was the highlight of Pompeo’s trip as Imran was joined by Army Chief DG ISI. Qureshi said in the past US officials often held separate meetings with the civil and military leadership leading to speculations that all state institutions were not on the same page. But it was not the case now as the prime minister was joined by the army chief and DG ISI in a clear message that on the issues of national interests all institutions were on the same page. He then confirmed that Secretary Pompeo held a separate meeting with the army chief, something he claimed was not unusual given the US delegation included the senior military commander.

The foreign minister claimed that negotiations were held in a ‘cordial and positive’ environment. He also brushed aside the impression that there was tough talking from either side. “Today’s visit has set the stage for resetting the ties and impasse in the relationship has been broken,” Qureshi told the news conference. He said the two sides had ‘candid and open discussions’ and the conclusion was that the solution to the Afghan problem was through dialogue. “This is the position Imran has been advocating for years. It is a welcome development that the US has expressed readiness for direct talks with the Taliban,” he said. He said the US side asked for help in achieving that goal and Pakistan would certainly play its part. However, he apparently linked Pakistan’s support to the US actively playing a role in defusing the tensions with India. Qureshi said easing of tensions with India would help Pakistan concentrate on playing its part for a peaceful solution to the Afghan problem. He said Secretary Pompeo’s visit also dropped a clear hint that the US had no plans to stay in Afghanistan forever, something that might dispel fears that Washington wants to extend its stay in the neighbouring country to keep a check on China and Russia.

The foreign minister accepted the invitation of Secretary Pompeo to visit Washington to take the discussions forward. Qureshi said he would hold the meeting with his US counterpart when he would go for the annual UN General Assembly session in New York. Qureshi also confirmed that he would soon undertake a visit to Afghanistan at the invitation of his Afghan counterpart. “Afghanistan and Pakistan’s future is interlinked,” he stressed. In meeting with Foreign Minister Qureshi, Pompeo discussed the potential for the United States and Pakistan to work together to advance joint priorities, including regional peace and stability.  “He also emphasised the value of strong people-to-people ties between our nations, built on decades of cultural and educational exchanges.” Foreign Minister Qureshi underscored the need to reset bilateral ties on the basis of mutual trust and respect, the FO said regarding the talks. Safeguarding Pakistan’s national interests will remain supreme priority, it added.

The US Secretary of State reportedly appreciated Pakistan’s sacrifices in the war on terror. Secretary Pompeo stated that US fully supported the reform agenda of Prime Minister Imran Khan and wished the government success in its implementation. Noting the importance of longstanding Pak-US relationship, Secretary Pompeo conveyed the US desire to work with Pakistan in furthering the shared objectives of peace and stability in Afghanistan.

An official handout issued by the PM office stated that Imran Khan said that his government’s agenda was focused on human development and poverty alleviation for which peace and stability in the region was a prerequisite. He underscored his commitment to peace with all neighbours. The prime minister added that Pakistan looked forward to strengthening its relationship with the US-based on trust and respect. Pakistan insists that it cannot fight the Afghan war on its soil and also suggests that the only way to find a peaceful solution to the conflict is through dialogue.

It is now official that apart from seeking comprehensive cooperation in the war against terror, the United States also wants Pakistan not to move closer to China and also ‘to find opportunities to improve things with India’. The most disgusting is the concern expressed by the United States over growing ‘economic ties’ between Pakistan and China. Objections to ‘economic aspect’ of Pak-China relations is a clear message that the United States is not happy over prospects of development and prosperity in Pakistan in the wake of monumental CPEC projects that have the potential to make the country economically sovereign, getting rid of all sorts of foreign dictation in the name of economic and financial assistance.

The United States and India signed a major communications security agreement during a visit by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary Jim Mattis to New Delhi. The Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement is a type of foundational accord that the United States uses as a framework for military cooperation with other countries. The relationship between the United States and India has entered “a new era,” Pompeo said, At a grand strategic level, both the United States and India are eager to develop closer ties. Each views the other as a useful partner in containing China.

Many countries, including India, “are in a place where it takes them a little bit of time to unwind” oil imports from Iran, he said. “We’ll work with them, I’m sure, to find an outcome that makes sense.” The Trump administration has withdrawn from a 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran and is re-imposing nuclear-related sanctions that were lifted as part of the deal. Pompeo also said the United States would work with India on another area of concern — India’s upcoming purchase of a Russian missile and air-defence system known as the S-400. The purchase will violate sanctions instituted by Congress on arms purchases from Russia, but lawmakers have allowed the possibility of a presidential waiver. Pompeo said no decision has been made on whether to grant India a waiver. But “we do understand the history of India’s relationship with Russia,” he said. “Our effort here is not to penalize great strategic partners like India.”

India has invited Trump to attend its annual Republic Day celebration in January, featuring a grand military parade, but it is unclear whether Trump will attend.

The billion dollar question is where is the Reset? At best there is a stalemate, but no one seems to be affirming. Any way, it is essential to build a national consensus on foreign policy.

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Proposal of floating “Overseas Pakistanis’ Bond” is a viable option and should be fast tracked. Alongside one could think of “Debt Retiring Bond” open to inland and overseas Pakistanis. There is need to create a “Saving Culture” through an environment of austerity and meaningful return on savings. Government restructuring could reduce the governance cost by one third; and fixing “Public Procurement Policy” procedures could add hefty saving of around 40 percent. There is need to untangle our taxation maze of multiple direct and indirect taxes strangulating those who pay their taxes and letting those go scot free who do not wish to pay taxes. Our taxation system is cruelly pegged. For those who want to pay taxes everything other than breathing air is taxed. And those who do not wish to pay they are offered shamelessly low 2.5 percent tax for their ill-gotten wealth staked outside Pakistan. Most of them did not avail the offer as tax was “too high”. Country’s existing tax regimes do not provide even playing field for all sectors. Pakistan’s economy comprises of: Industrial Sector (20.91 percent of GDP); Agriculture Sector (18.86 percent of GDP); and a sparkling Services Sector (60.23 percent of GDP.; Agriculture Sector’s tax contribution is little over one percent of gross national tax; Industrial Sector accounts for around 17 percent of tax. Services are inordinately overtaxed. Recently Supreme Court had to intervene to reduce taxation on mobile telephone users and gasoline to provide much needed relief to hapless consumers. Due to inefficient Regulators, the quality of services is far below the acceptable standards. 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