Yet another fight, but no reasons for divorce between US and Pakistan yet
Pakistan and the United States have been in the midst of a never-ending and messy public divorce for more than a decade now. The latest drama was triggered when, during a Fox News diatribe against retired Navy Admiral William McRaven, US President Donald Trump took a detour to complain about the quality of alliance offered by Pakistan in the US war in Afghanistan.
Reeling from what has been a more difficult first three months in office than he had anticipated, Prime Minister Imran Khan shot back on Twitter, highlighting the US’ failure to appreciate or acknowledge Pakistan’s very difficult fight against Al Qaeda and its affiliates.
The exchange ensued before PM Khan finally asked Trump to stop externalizing Washington’s failures in Afghanistan while announcing his intention to stop fighting America’s war.
The stormy Pakistan–US marriage was solemnized in the late 1970s, as a tool in America’s arsenal of weapons against the Soviet Union. After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the fall of the Berlin Wall in the late 1980s, the Americans hightailed it out of the region.
Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were left alone to deal with a broken and cancerously-divided Afghanistan. When the September 11 attacks awakened the world to the horrors of the disintegration of the Afghan society under the Taliban, the Pakistan-US flame was rekindled once again. Pakistan has often complained about how shallow and easily distractible America’s treatment of it is — but each time the US comes calling again, Pakistan makes no effort to deny its advances.
Ever since Trump took office, the failing, meandering and aimless American war in Afghanistan has been blamed on Pakistan more explicitly and publicly than by any other previous US leader. Nevertheless, each public disagreement has been followed by weeks, and sometimes months of quiet cooperation, intelligence sharing, and even mutually-beneficial planning of reconciliation talks with the Taliban for the future of Afghanistan.
When Zalmay Khalilzad, a veteran Republican foreign policy strategist, was appointed to quarterback the Trump administration’s efforts at conceptualizing a process for Afghan reconciliation, many Pakistanis had feared another cycle of bitter public feuds taking place between the two countries.
Each public disagreement between Pakistan and the US has been followed by weeks, and sometimes months of quiet cooperation, intelligence sharing, and even mutually-beneficial planning of reconciliation talks with the Taliban for the future of Afghanistan.
However, Khalilzad’s diplomacy has been remarkable, measured and effective. As the US inches closer to the stated Pakistani position on how to initiate reconciliation in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s military and intelligence circles have been increasingly willing to cooperate with American requests, including the release of several long-incarcerated leaders of the Taliban, just so they can participate in peace talks with the Americans.
The stakes for both countries are quite high. The US needs a pathway out of its engagement in Afghanistan that does not seem like another premature exit, or worse, a defeat at the hands of the very Taliban that it sought to punish in Afghanistan for sheltering Al Qaeda back in 2001. Pakistan needs to find a way to prevent the US from becoming completely aligned with India on the issues that matter to Pakistan. Efforts by the US to bequeath its state-building project in Afghanistan to New Delhi have no chance of succeeding — but they risk inflaming already-nervous Pakistanis about how the regional game is going to end.
Luckily, Pakistan has recently renewed its traditionally-steadfast and deep relations with both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Khan was visiting Abu Dhabi when he indulged in the Twitter spat with Trump. The Saudis and Emiratis are sensitive to Pakistan’s legitimate concerns about being scapegoated for US’ failure in Afghanistan. If diplomacy between Pakistani and US officials fails to repair the latest damage from the Trump-Khan twitter feud, Pakistan’s allies in the region will serve the role of interlocutors as good as any.
What is more likely to happen is that such interventions will not be needed at all. Each Tweet that Khan shot at Trump was followed by the same message in an Urdu translation. Given the very limited Urdu-speaking population outside Pakistan, it is clear that part of the compulsion to push back against what seems like US bullying is domestic politics.
PM Khan came to office riding high on a unique and unprecedented wave of nationalistic angst —helped in parts by the incredible campaign that Pakistani policemen, soldiers, and spies have fought against remnants of Al Qaeda, known as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan.
Having won a war at home, no Pakistani leader can afford to look weak abroad. Equally, having sought Saudi, Chinese, Emirati and the International Monetary Fund’s support for its economy, no Pakistani leader can afford to sustain quarrels with America. For its part, the US needs Pakistan far more than it has throughout this tumultuous marriage. Irrespective of how bad things may seem thanks to Trump and Khan, a final divorce settlement is not forthcoming. Tempers will cool and it will be back to business and finding a solution for Afghanistan, soon enough. For Afghanistan, and the entire region’s sake, that is a good thing.
– Mosharraf Zaidi is a columnist and policy analyst. He works for the policy think tank, Tabadlab.