Challenges to 'resetting' ties
Pakistan must note Secretary Pompeo’s words on how it needs to take sustained measures against terrorists threatening regional peace and stability
The backdrop to the first high-level US-Pak engagement between the estranged 'allies' could not be more ominous and unpropitious. Recently elected Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan of Tehreek-e-Pakistan had spewed the most anti-US rhetoric of the three mainstream parties in the electoral hustings. Almost on instinct and even before his appointment, Imran Khan reiterated his position in the victory speech that viewed the relationship with the US as 'one way' and he sought a correction to a 'mutually beneficial' and 'balanced' equation, whilst simultaneously waxing eloquently about its relationship with US's bête-noire China, saying that it 'gives us a huge opportunity through CPEC'. The unfiltered statement and lack of diplomatic maturity were immediately noted and reciprocated by the equally straight-talking dispensation in Washington DC. The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wasted no time in alluding to the looming financial discomfiture for Pakistan, by warning IMF that there was 'no rationale' for bailing out Pakistan for repaying the Chinese CPEC loans and added for good measure, 'Make no mistake, We will be watching what the IMF does'! Immediately after the swearing-in of the 22nd Prime Minister of Pakistan, the undercurrents between the two nations were on full display after the publically-disputed contents of the perfunctory telephonic call made by Mike Pompeo to Imran Khan, where the bogey of Pakistani bravado was called-out by the American threat of revealing the call transcript. Now, Mike Pompeo accompanied by the US Chief of Staff, Gen Joseph Dunford and the newly appointed US Special Adviser on Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad engaged with team-Imran Khan and the Pakistani 'establishment' (read, Pakistani Military)
Certainly Imran Khan has inherited a sliding US-Pak relationship that was personified by US President Donald Trump's New Year tweet on Pakistan's patent duplicitousness, 'The United States has foolishly given more than $33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!' Since then a series of military, civil and training aid has been cut by the US, including the $300 million from the Coalition Support Fund to Pakistan. Portents of the awkward cold vibes were obvious in the stated objective of the first-formal engagement, which sought a 'reset of relationship'. Initial grandstanding in both capitals notwithstanding the US stare-down had some blunt and unequivocal messaging for the new dispensation that went beyond the ping-pong of 'do more' and 'no more' chorus that had defined the recent narrative. Expectedly, Pakistan blinked for now and the post-meeting statements emanating from Islamabad are decidedly unheroic, ambiguous, and couched in diplomatic inanities. Pakistan Foreign Minister Mehmood Qureshi's climb-down by way of dropping discussions on the elephant in the room - the contentious $300 million aid cut was symptomatic of the US pressures.
Beyond Trump's individual opinion on the Pakistani saga, the next three most important people in Washington DC from the Pakistani perspective have a 'Uniform' perspective that is institutionally at cross-roads with the Pakistani track. The Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is a former Military Veteran and was till recently the Director of the CIA, where he would be privy to the official Pakistani machinations. The US Secretary of Defence is the former Marine Corps General Jim Mattis, whose frustrating insinuations to the Pakistanis to 'redouble' efforts bore no results. While the re-arrival of the Afghan-born and known Pakistan-baiter, Zalmay Khalilzad, as the US Special Adviser to Afghanistan augurs badly for the Pakistani-instincts to perpetuate, what Donald Trump called, 'deceit & lies'. Zalmay Khalilzad had hawkishly given his mind in an earlier tweet, 'Success in Afghanistan and in the war against terror require a change in the policy of Pakistan which pretends to be a partner but behaves like an enemy. Pakistani double game must stop. Time to shift to a coerce strategy'. This troika of pivotal stakeholders are blunt-talkers who are not expected to indulge in nebulous contours of 'resetting'. In the aftermath of the meetings the official twitter handle of the ruling PTI was left noting, 'Confident body language from the PM, and smiles from the US Secretary of State', the absence of the usual contextualisation of the US drone attacks, 'K' word or even India, was substantial. Whereas the press note from the US Department of State was a lot more specific, 'In all of his meetings, Secretary Pompeo emphasised the important role Pakistan could play in bringing about a negotiated peace in Afghanistan, and conveyed the need for Pakistan to take sustained and decisive measures against terrorists and militants threatening regional peace and stability'.
Considering Zalmay Khalilzad's sole brief to bring reconciliation in Afghanistan, the man who in the past had asked for Pakistan to be declared a 'terrorist state' will be extremely wary and on the short-fuse with the traditional Pakistani interpretation of 'resetting'. Perforce, Pakistan will have to do the diplomatic tightrope on financial-survival as it has walked into the Chinese 'debt-trap' and will need help beyond its ostensible 'all-weather friendship' with the Chinese. Politically, Imran Khan is secure for the next five years and he need not stoke the latent religious passions to persist with his anti-West line, which was obviously gratifying from a 'challenger-perspective'. The Pakistan Military will have its own inviolable red-lines for Imran Khan to ensure that he does not diminish their relevance, however, Imran Khan may find the Military Generals to be more accommodative and interested in thawing the freeze with the Americans, vis-à-vis the politicos or the all-influential, clergy. A smart barter of restarting the crucial US financial aid (as tantalisingly kept open by Mike Pompeo), in exchange for demonstrating concrete steps in the fundamental approach of the Pakistani track, may just be the beginning for the 'resetting' of the equations between the two countries, who frankly need each other a lot more than they publically acknowledge. Now is as good a time, as has ever been, to do so.
(Lt General Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry. The views expressed are strictly personal)