U.S.-Pakistan Re-Engagement; Hamid Hussain

From Dr Hamid Hussain

U.S.-Pakistan Re-Engagement

Hamid Hussain

 ‘Being a friend of the United States was like living on the banks of a great river.  The soil is wonderfully fertile, but every four or eight years the river changes course, and you may find yourself alone in a desert’.  General Muhammad Zia ul Haq to William Casey 1983 quoted in John E. Persico’s Casey: The Lives and Secrets of William J. Casey: From the OSS to the CIA.

 In July 2019, Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan and President Donald Trump met at White House that generated some headlines and as expected from every Trump encounter some controversy.  As expected, this news lasted less than twelve hours in United States and 4-5 days in Pakistan.  Life has gone back to normal.  Positive signs should be acknowledged but Pakistan should not be carried away by euphoria.  The good part is that civilian and army leadership does not have trust deficit and not undermining each other.  This alone is a breath of fresh air for Pakistan.

 Meeting’s agenda was very narrow with Pakistan asking for some relief from international donor agencies and release of Coalition Support Funds (CSF) and Washington asking for help to conclude negotiations with Taliban and keep a tight lid on militants operating from Pakistan.  I’ll caution everybody who is jumping on the merry go-around as Washington policy circles are in complete disarray. President Trump’s special envoy Zalmay ‘Zal’ Khalilzad is doing his own pony show on the direction of his boss.  All other agencies including Pentagon, State Department and half a dozen intelligence agencies are not in the loop and don’t expect a breakthrough.  There is almost unanimous opinion that after complete US withdrawal, there will be another round of civil war in Afghanistan (some argue that a civil war is already raging with foreign troops simply standing as bystanders).  Disagreement is only on the intensity and how it will suck in other countries both neighbors and other interested parties.  These agencies are getting ready for that contingency and this means re-activation of ‘old Afghan clients.  This is the reason that they are sending only observers to Zal’s show so that in case of failure the egg is only on President’s face. 

 Short term benefit for Pakistan will be re-instatement of ‘rent checks’ and army desperately needs these funds.  As I’m writing, State Department announced a $125 million package for support of Pakistan’s F-16s.  Release of some Coalition Support Funds (CSF) will be next if Pakistan keeps Taliban on the right track.  This was the reason that army Chief and Director general Inter-Services Intelligence (DGISI) did all the talking on policy implementation side while prime minister mostly photo op.  I don’t think army brass feels confident enough about Imran to handle such delicate matters like Afghanistan to have him run the show. 

 To my knowledge, there was no specific excitement about Pakistan in any other quarter, hence no selected leaks or damning op-eds. The unexpected Kashmir ‘mediation’ Trumpian slip sent India into a frenzy and there was flurry of communications between Washington and Delhi before clarification statement came from Indian foreign ministry. Pakistan’s unfound and unrealistic euphoria about this mediation ‘slip’ lasted merely two weeks when India moved in to remove special status of Kashmir.  This has changed the whole landscape of Kashmir issue.

 Imran Khan invited President Trump for a visit. It was just a courtesy and I don’t see this happening. Trump is a highly radioactive material as far as Muslim world is concerned and anyone getting too close to him risks contamination.  Anger against Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman MBS and United Arab Emirates (UAE) Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Zayd (MBZ) in their own countries as well as in wider Muslim communities is being seriously underestimated.  This is only due to their coziness with Trump.  In a recent incident, a Saudi blogger who advocates normalization of relations with Israel visited Jerusalem.  Palestinians chased him out spitting on his face and during this heckling they also cursed Saudi Royal family calling MBS as ‘collaborator’. People need to pay attention to such undercurrents for folks like Shah of Iran, Qaddafi etc. can sit on it for decades before the volcano engulfs them.

 There is very narrow area of mutual interest for both countries.  Pakistan’s re-engagement with Washington is to decrease international pressure and secure loan from international agencies. Washington in turn needs Pakistan’s help to conclude talks with Taliban.  Washington has already announced significant drawdown of remaining 14’000 American troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2019.  Likely, there will be another round of civil war in Afghanistan.  This will suck in many countries.  Thanks to some ill thought policies pursued in the last few years, Pakistani polity is severely fractured with many alienated groups that is always a bad omen.  Pakistan needs to put up firewalls urgently as a contingency plan for likelihood of new phase of civil war in Afghanistan. Hope is great but it is not a substitute for strategy.

 ‘For God’s sake, if you once make an affirmative decision, stick to it because we will have burned our bridges behind us’.  Prime Minister Muhammad Ali Bogra to Hildreth, December 1953, cited in Robert J. McMahon.  The Cold war on the Periphery: The United States, India and Pakistan.

 Hamid Hussain

05 August 2019

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