Doing the right thing finally

By Zamir Akram

Winston Churchill once stated, “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing after they’ve tried everything else”. This was a truly prescient statement, at least when considering America’s Afghan policy. After pursuing the military option against the Taliban for more than 17 years, the US has finally recognised the need for dialogue in search of a political settlement. This change is not just the right thing to do but the only option available to America.

Trump’s letter to Prime Minister Imran Khan to help facilitate this dialogue with the Taliban is also a marked reversal in the American approach of pressuring Pakistan through sanctions and demanding of it to ‘do more’ against the Taliban. This change vindicates Pakistan’s consistent advocacy of a dialogue with the Taliban and justifies its decision not to use force against them. However, it remains to be seen whether this change in the US policy will succeed in ending the Afghan war and improving the Pakistan-US relations.

US decision to withdraw troops will lead to peace in Afghanistan

Constant ranting about Pakistan’s support to the Taliban has been used to scapegoat Pakistan for American military failure in Afghanistan. The real reasons for this failure are, however, related to Washington’s own mistakes of omission and commission, lack of strategic clarity, inconsistent policies, emphasis on use of force rather than dialogue, and failure to control narco-terrorism. But, most importantly, the US consistently refused to recognise Pakistan’s security interests in Afghanistan and thereby still remains at odds with the most critical regional player.

Due to the combination of these factors, a stage has now been reached where the Taliban fully control at least 40% of the country, while the Afghan forces, despite being backed up by American air and ground support, are unable to stem the tide. According to The American Conservative journal of November 30, “America is headed for military defeat in Afghanistan.”

Even the CENTCOM Commander, General Joseph Votel, has conceded that there is a ‘stalemate’ in Afghanistan. This means, according to guerrilla warfare strategy, the Taliban have won by not losing, but the Americans have lost by not winning”. Therefore, the writing is clearly on the wall. Myopic American generals, spies and diplomats have hopefully just managed to read it.

But is this too little too late? Certainly the Taliban are under no pressure to negotiate with the US  on anything else but their own terms. These terms call for withdrawal of all American forces, direct talks with the US and not with the American ‘puppet’ government in Kabul, removal of all sanctions on the Taliban, release of Taliban prisoners and recognition of the Taliban as a legitimate Afghan political entity. This may be an opening negotiating gambit but the Taliban hold a strong hand.

So far these terms are not acceptable to Ashraf Ghani’s government which insists on a role in the dialogue process otherwise it fears becoming irrelevant. While the Americans are ready to talk directly to the Taliban, they also do not want to abandon their clients in Kabul. They also claim that they are ready to withdraw as long as they are given ‘assurances’ that Afghanistan will not again become a haven for terrorists that can attack the US or its allies. The Taliban, they say, are willing to give such assurances but how are these to be operationalised? Besides, who will give assurances about ISIS? Certainly not the Taliban.

Such uncertainties put the spotlight on Pakistan to facilitate an agreement. Hence came the Trump’s letter for Pakistan’s help in a major climbdown from his earlier fulminations. The unacknowledged fact is that this would not have happened had Pakistan succumbed to American pressure. But the question arises whether Pakistan should pull America’s chestnuts out of the fire? And for what?

Even though the Americans have finally accepted Pakistan’s advice for a dialogue and are seeking our cooperation to facilitate this process, Pakistan still continues to be under US sanctions. Most recently, religious freedom related strictures were imposed in a blatant display of double standards since no such sanctions have been applied to American allies like Modi’s India, despite its well-known persecution of Muslims and Christians.

This American policy of continuing with sanctions on Pakistan while seeking its cooperation to engage with the Taliban is duplicitous and inconsistent. The American justification for sanctioning Pakistan has been its alleged support for the Taliban. But now that the US is itself ready to engage with the Taliban to reach a political settlement, there remains no justification to continue sanctions against Pakistan.

Always desired for political settlement in Afghanistan

These circumstances justify a more robust response from Pakistan to American pressure tactics. Past venal leaders beholden to the US were incapable of such policy choices. But this government has demonstrated that it is not bound by these limitations. It is, therefore, in a better position to bargain with the Americans for securing Pakistan’s interests.

Apart from facilitating the dialogue with the Taliban, the US continues to depend on Pakistan for air and ground links to Afghanistan, as well as our intelligence cooperation and counter terrorism operations. As the America-Taliban meeting in the UAE on December 17 demonstrates, we have the capability to deliver. But there must be a quid pro quo for our cooperation. As the Americans say “there is no free lunch”.

For a face-saving exit, the US must be asked to remove all sanctions, fully reimburse CSF monies, completely terminate all TTP bases sponsored by India and Afghanistan, support construction of the fence on the Pakistan-Afghan border, ensure return of Afghan refugees and, most importantly, respect Pakistan’s redlines about Indian involvement in Afghanistan. If the Americans do not deliver, we should be under no obligation to bail them out of Afghanistan.

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