A new phase in US-Pakistan relations?

The fourth Pakistan–US bilateral dialogue currently taking place in Islamabad might lead some to believe that the two countries are seeking a new basis for an old relationship. But going by what is being said by each side openly and behind doors, the relationship seems stuck in a quagmire.

Neither American nor Pakistani concerns are new nor is there reason for either to change its position. Both sides will likely remain engaged while continuing to complain about the other.

In his speech of August 21, 2017, President Donald Trump had stepped up the rhetoric against Pakistan. He said that the “highest concentration” of “US-designated foreign terrorist organisations are active in Afghanistan and Pakistan” and insisted that Pakistan “gives safe haven to agents of chaos, violence, and terror.”

Trump’s statement that “No partnership can survive a country’s harbouring of militants and terrorists who target US service members and officials” has, to date, had little real impact on US-Pakistan relations.

In his trip to Islamabad last month, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sought to urge Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders to step up counter militancy and counterterrorism efforts. Coming on the heels of President Trump’s speech criticising Pakistan, praising India and seeking an Indian role in Afghanistan and Secretary Tillerson’s own speech calling for a 100-year relationship with India, it was interesting how each side portrayed Tillerson’s inaugural visit to Pakistan.

The statement issued by the Americans stated that “The Secretary reiterated President Donald Trump’s message that Pakistan must increase its efforts to eradicate militants and terrorists operating within the country.” On the other hand, the statement issued by Prime Minister Abbasi’s office preferred to underline the importance of high level bilateral engagements.

“The two sides agreed to build upon the understandings reached in the dialogue process and to continue the pace and scope of high-level engagements in future,” said the Pakistani statement, underplaying American demands and the indications that the US now clearly towards India in the subcontinent. From Pakistan’s point of view, Americans have uttered harsh words before but as long as they do not take steps against Pakistan, the relationship remains where it is.

Before leaving the region the American Secretary of State told reporters in New Delhi “Quite frankly my view – and I expressed this to the leadership of Pakistan – is we also are concerned about the stability and security of Pakistan’s government as well. “This could lead to a threat to Pakistan’s own stability. It is not in anyone’s interests that the government of Pakistan be destabilised.” It seems that the US is worried about the ongoing, dragged domestic political maneuverings involving judicial-political moves.

The ongoing US-Pakistan bilateral dialogue could also be a dialogue of the deaf, with neither side changing its views and both reaching different conclusions about the meeting’s outcome. As always, there is no bad US-Pakistan diplomatic exchange and many diplomats (on both sides) believe that a pleasant exchange coupled with a plausible media explanation of the talks is all that is needed.

Each side publicly addresses the concern of its own leaders and people but both enjoy the samosas and tea in private.

US Ambassador David Hale focused his comments in the bilateral dialogue on the need for Pakistan to take action against terror groups, and urging Pakistan to refrain from selective anti-terror operations. “We ask for equal diligence in decimating all the groups operating in Pakistan which threaten the region’s stability, including the Haqqani network. We seek a sustained and irreversible effort to achieve an aspiration and commitment that was made public by Pakistani officials themselves, and end to the use of Pakistan soil for attacks on its neighbours.”

Ambassador Hale noted “Pakistani leaders have made clear that they share our goals for a peaceful and stable Afghanistan. It is now time to join in our efforts and create a context in which terrorist groups can no longer launch cross-border attacks and see no alternative to negotiations.” He also repeated Secretary Tillerson’s warning that Washington “will act accordingly” if Pakistan’s leaders choose “not to take advantage of this opportunity” without saying what that might entail.

Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif, however, pushed back saying that the new strategy of President Trump had created “needless divergence” between the two countries. Pakistan had long standing relations with the United States and the “blame game” needed to be stopped if the two countries sought to sustain bilateral relations.

“Ladies and gentlemen, a conditions-based approach is primarily a strategy of denial and a strategic stalemate,” Asif said, words that would please Pakistanis even if they are ignored by Americans. It would more likely lead to further fragmentation and divisions within an already fractured society, making it that much more difficult to build peace mechanism and related structures.”

“Pakistan is committed to respond effectively to any actionable intelligence provided by the US. This is the only way forward to test each other’s resolve and commitment to combat terrorism,” Asif noted.

He insisted that a “devastated US policy towards Afghanistan” was the real factor behind the failure of the Afghan peace talks.” He asserted that Pakistan had always played its role towards the establishment of peace in Afghanistan, adding further that when it came to issues like countering terrorism, Pakistan had the right to make its own policies.

The foreign minister repeated standard Pakistani talking points, going back at least a decade. According to him, it was India’s growing influence in Afghanistan that was causing instability in South Asia and was a threat to the peace process in the region.

Asif also welcomed any efforts by the United States to play a role in Kashmir and help end the India-Pakistan conflict, insisting that until that is done, Pakistan would not tolerate growing Indian influence in Afghanistan. The foreign minister repeated concerns over India’s role in US Asian strategy and asserted that Pakistan’s security concerns in the region should be recognised.

Asif insisted that there were “no terrorist safe havens” inside Pakistan and that instead there was a need for Afghanistan to destroy the safe havens on its side of the border. “Today, Afghanistan faces huge challenges with respect to corruption, building state institutions, transitioning from a war economy, record drugs production, ethnic and tribal divisions and expanding ungoverned areas; all these are monumental tasks and all are internal to Afghanistan,” he said.

Ironically, there appears to be little convergence and tremendous divergence in how each side views the relationship. The strategic calculus of Pakistan and the United States does not overlap nor is either side willing to take the steps that would result in strategic convergence. But there are many career diplomats in both countries who do not want the illusion of partnership to end. Their hope is that if only both sides keep talking, some convergence will appear.

Frequent sessions of shared samosas and tea are not a substitute for shared interests. Until Pakistan re-calibrates its strategic calculus or the United States concludes that it is willing to distance itself from India to maintain alliance with Pakistan, the relationship will continue to go round in circles as it has done now for quite some time.

(Sadiq Saleem is a US-based businessman and analyst)