Pak-US talks a good beginning

By Shafqat Mahmood

The optics after the first round of the strategic dialogue in Washington are better than the results announced.

If ever a picture said a thousand words, it was that of a beaming Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Pakistan’s foreign minister, and the American secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. No stiff body language here; much camaraderie, many words of friendship.

The results at first glance appear meagre: a few energy projects, assistance for the Benazir Income Support Programme and a fast track to some military hardware. Also, an apparent firm no to nuclear power plants, and hands off on an American role in promoting India-Pakistan dialogue.

This does not seem like a breakthrough or the beginning of a new strategic relationship. If anything, after the hype that preceded the dialogue, it seems more like a stalemate. But there is obviously more to it than meets the eye.

A few ground realities have to be recognised. The US needs Pakistan and Pakistan needs the United States.

First, why is Pakistan vital to US interests in this region? On two levels, the possibility of honourable settlement for it in Afghanistan hinges on Pakistan’s cooperation. The supply line of its troops and that of the Nato forces runs through this country. Without Pakistan’s cooperation, it can grind to a halt. And there are no viable alternatives.

Secondly, the conflict in Afghanistan is not of a kind where a straightforward military victory is possible. The fighting can only prepare the ground for a political settlement that allows the Americans to declare victory and leave. Pakistan has a role in both.

On the military side, it can, and has begun, to tighten the screws on the Afghan Taliban. It is no longer willing to provide them safe havens when the pressure gets to be too much in Afghanistan. This is designed to force them to think dialogue.

Politically, Pakistan started to circumscribe the space available to the Afghan Taliban leadership in this country. Whether the arrest of Mullah Baradar and others is part of a chess game to stop them from cutting separate deals or a genuine attempt to hold them to account, the fact remains that as a player in the “dialogue with the Taliban” equation, Pakistan cannot be ignored.

The other side of the Pakistan-US relationship is also equally important. Pakistan needs US support and assistance in a number of areas. In Afghanistan, it has a vital interest in its stability and a government that is not hostile to it. The much-maligned strategic depth concept, in its current formulation, is nothing more than an Afghanistan friendly to Pakistan.

This is where India’s presence in Afghanistan becomes an issue for Pakistan. As long as the current state of hostility exists between the two, Pakistan fears that India would make every attempt to turn the Afghans against it. It would also use its presence to foment trouble in Balochistan and, in a manner of speaking, encircle the country.

As an occupying power in Afghanistan, Pakistan believes, the United States can restrict Indian presence in that country. It can also ensure that no anti-Pakistan activity takes place on Afghan soil. This includes denying sanctuary to Baloch dissidents like Brahmdagh Bugti.

The India-Pakistan rivalry has thus become an important subplot for the US in the Afghan situation and in the region as a whole. Pakistan wants to leverage this to make India move forward on the composite dialogue process and on Kashmir. The US has been doing precisely that, without acknowledging it publicly.

Pakistan also wants the US to accept its nuclear status and conclude an arrangement similar to that it has with India. This is a tricky area and may not happen, but it helps to seek some alternatives, such as a nuclear power plant or conventional armaments. At least on the arms side, it appears that some progress has been made.

The big elephant in the negotiating room is Pakistan’s dire economic straits. This has many dimensions, including budgetary deficits, energy problems, poverty issues and support for infrastructure projects. The current US commitment of $1.5 billion is too little, given the size of the problem, and Pakistan would be seeking more.

US help would also be vital in multilateral forums. It is not a secret that without its nod institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF do not move. Pakistan would be seeking more assistance and an easing of conditions. The last aspect is vital because IMF support is conditional and some of the stringent ones are hard to meet.

To sum up, both Pakistan and the US need each other. The game is to leverage advantages and play on the vulnerabilities to gain the maximum. There are no friends among nations, just a coming together of mutual interests. There seems to be recognition on both sides that such congruence is possible. Hence, the happy optics.

A few words on the process. According to press reports, Pakistan, for once, did its homework and prepared a comprehensive document, as many as 56 pages, to outline its interests. This was made available to the Americans well before the talks giving, them time to circulate it within their system. This ensured proper consideration and well-thought-out responses.

The management of the dialogue was also done better. Instead of cursory meetings with various centres of power and little cohesion, the talks were attended by all the principle agencies and interlocutors. The fact that the secretaries of state and defence, plus representatives from the military, the National Security Council and aid agencies, were present made the process meaningful.

The presence of Gen Kayani from the Pakistani side was equally important. This was reflected in the meetings he had prior to the talks, which prepared the ground for a meaningful military cooperation. It may not correspond to pristine notions of democracy, but the military is the most powerful institution in Pakistan. The participation by its chief gave the talks the necessary gravitas to make them consequential.

What happens next? Are we entering a new and more substantive phase of Pakistan-US relations? The truthful answer is that it is too early to tell. Some broad principles may be agreed to in the Washington talks, but this will just be a beginning. It is the follow-up, working-group-type meetings that will determine the outcome.

Reports are that the next phase is likely to be in April, and probably in Islamabad. My guess is that this will not be as high-level as the current meeting, but more detailed, and will get into nuts and bolts. It is only then that the final contours of any long-term strategic partnership will become visible.



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