The much awaited strategic dialogue between the US and Pakistan has now resumed after the visit of US Secretary of State John Kerry. Resuming the dialogue is important for both countries, for different reasons. More than the visit by Kerry (and whom all he did or did not meet) and the decision to resume the Strategic Dialogue between the countries, it is important to focus on the following two important questions.
Has Pakistan agreed to help the US in easing the exit in Afghanistan especially by reducing its support to the Taliban, primarily the Haqqani network? In return, is the US willing to provide a civilian nuclear deal to Pakistan, along the lines of the Indo-US nuclear deal?
Other questions, involving the drone attacks, Pak-Iran cooperation on gas pipelines, economy and the new military leadership after General Kayani, are all likely to be secondary and tertiary issues in the strategic dialogue.
As of now, Pakistan holds the trump card. The Americans need Pakistan more than the other way around. The Afghan exit, perhaps, is one of the most important strategic choices that Obama’s administration has to make at the global level. Certainly, the Obama administration does not want Afghanistan to become another Iraq – towards the end of the American presence, and after the exit.
One of the primary objective for Obama’s administration in Afghanistan is to exit with a “face”, without much of a violence and mayhem, tarnishing the American reputation in achieving its military interest in a third country. The US may have the maximum number of nuclear weapons, ICBMs, air-craft carriers, nuclear submarines and B-52 stealth bombers and be the most powerful nation in the history of mankind. But come 2014, Afghanistan will be seen as a huge American military failure. How will history record the US presence, its success (if any) and its failure in Afghanistan? Will it be seen as worse than Vietnam and Iraq?
Even more importantly, what will happen to Afghanistan after 2014? Will it remain stable, or go the Iraqi way? How will national and regional history see American presence in Afghanistan? What will the international reputation of the US be?
The immediate concerns of the Obama administration in Afghanistan are twofold: first, to have a decent and face-saving exit from Afghanistan, without losing much blood on the ground, and more importantly, its international image. And second, to ensure that there is a semblance of stability in Afghanistan after 2014.
For both the above concerns, the US needs Pakistan. In fact, the Pakistani support to the US efforts to reach out to the Taliban in Doha is a calculated move. Without the tacit support of the military and ISI Chiefs in Pakistan, US would not have reached Qatar. It is ironic that the process failed, primarily because of the same reason. Karzai and his administration were aware of the Islamabad and Rawalpindi link to Doha, and were afraid that there was an external solution being imposed on Afghanistan with Pakistan’s active inputs.
Pakistan is well aware of American needs; obviously, neither Islamabad, nor Rawalpindi are less likely to provide Washington what the latter wants, without getting their pound of flesh. Why would they? For the US has been using and abusing Pakistan in the last six decades, for its own strategic interests; and in return, Pakistan has been smart enough to push its own little regional game, and get away with it. The US was well aware of the genocide in East Pakistan, pilferage and Islamization under Zia and the subsequent nuclearization; but looked the other way, looking at the “larger” picture.
What would Pakistan want in return? To stop drone attacks? Economic assistance and aid? Or a civilian nuclear deal?
There is a huge misperception that preventing American drone attacks is the most important issue for Pakistan. Utter nonsense. To expect Pakistan’s military of being incapable of shooting down the drones would be impossible. Forget about shooting the drones down – how many times were they fired against, either as a warning or as a strategy? Is Pakistan incapable of firing, does it lack sufficient fire power, or is it simply afraid?
Remember the Salala raid by the Americans inside the Pakistani territory, resulting in the killing of multiple Pakistani soldiers? After that, Pakistan upped the ante, stopped the NATO supply line and the strategic dialogue. Did the Americans cross the Durand Line again? The Americans are aware of Pakistan’s red lines; drones are certainly not one of them. There has always been a clear understanding between the US and Pakistan’s leadership (political and military) on the drone attacks.
Internal protests and statements are purely for domestic consumption. Even if Pakistan raises the drone attacks in the dialogue – it will remain rhetoric, but the ultimate aim will be something else.
It is likely that Pakistan will pitch for a civilian nuclear deal with the US. There have already been proposals from American think tanks that Pakistan should also get a similar nuclear deal from the US. Pakistan is bound to insist to the US: If you want a decent exit from Afghanistan, give us a nuclear deal.
As of now, the cards are in Pakistan’s favour. Will the US yield?