The ties that bind

  • (File) Barack Obama speaks to troops during a visit to Bagram Air Field near Kabul. | AFP
  • (File) A protester sets fire to a US flag during a demonstration in Islamabad | AFP

As Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is set to meet US President Barack Obama, the key issue on the table is the US extension of its military presence in Afghanistan

  • After years of closely following the Taliban, the US government remains divided on how the group relates to Pakistan.

  • Since the September 11 attacks, Pakistan has received over $31 billion in direct overt aid and military reimbursements from the US

  • Since 2001, US trade in goods with Pakistan gradually rose, with a 180 per cent increase in US exports to Pakistan and a 63 per cent increase in US imports from Pakistan

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will visit Washington, DC, on October 22 to meet President Barack Obama. Sharif’s visit occurs at a time of great transition.

Pakistan faces a tough fight against domestic terrorism. The 2016 presidential campaign is underway in the US. And Obama just announced a major shift in his Afghanistan strategy, halting the withdrawal to leave 5,500 troops at the end of 2017 instead of the initially planned for 1,000 troops. Now in the end of his second term, Obama has the opportunity to be more direct about what he wants to do in Pakistan. But Sharif, who is in the middle of his tenure and still tiptoeing around Pakistan’s powerful military brass, lacks this luxury. Given these circumstances, it is hard to imagine what Obama and Sharif might achieve.

But as the region faces new tumult, and since the US-Pakistan relationship continues to be a lynchpin in the war in Afghanistan, the work of the two leaders remains driven by a sense of urgency and relevance to US national security. As the war in Afghanistan faces yet another turning point, the US and Pakistan will have plenty of demands to make on each other. At the same time, they will be faced with tough decisions about what has and hasn’t worked. It’s worth reviewing the main issues up for discussion and what might be possible to achieve in the short run—a realistic timeframe for an always complicated, yet vital relationship.

Obama will push Pakistan to play a positive role in Afghanistan. The US would like Pakistan to put pressure on the Haqqani Network (HQN), an Afghan Pashtun militant group based out of Pakistan’s tribal areas. It is widely believed that the Pakistani government, which views the HQN as an asset in Afghanistan, looks the other way as HQN finances, coordinates, and conducts attacks on American and NATO targets in Afghanistan. In some cases, such as the 2009 Camp Chapman bombing in Khost province that killed nine people, the US observed more direct links between Pakistani intelligence and those responsible for killing Americans. US patience with Pakistan on this matter fluctuates. When the need for US-Pakistan collaboration is high, the HQN issue often falls to the wayside. But when the links are too blatant to ignore, often coinciding with a downward trajectory in the bilateral relationship, the Americans turn up the volume on the issue—as they have done recently during US National Security Advisor Susan Rice’s August visit to Pakistan.

Pakistan’s historic support for Pashtun tribes in Afghanistan was based on the notion that they would guard against Indian influence in the country—a Pakistani concern that persists today. This led the Pakistanis down a complicated path of support for al Qaeda friendly Taliban regime that ruled Afghanistan before the beginning of the war. As a result, Pakistan has always been viewed as a spoiler in Afghanistan. Because Pakistan’s sense of the Indian threat hasn’t changed, its Afghan Pashtun policy also persists, but with some variation. In recent years, Pakistan has reached out to non-Pashtun groups, such as some members of Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance coalition, using intelligence, diplomatic, and military channels. This is an adjustment to the traditional policy that primarily used intelligence channels to influence Pashtun groups. Obama’s pressure on this issue will be for naught.

Pakistan needs the HQN now more than ever before. The Haqqanis—a family who dominated provinces along the AfPak border before NATO deployed in Afghanistan in 2001—seek to play a more active and formal role in Afghanistan’s new political environment. With NATO no longer patrolling those areas, Pakistan will have no choice but to play the same old game of proxies it has engaged in for decades. Pakistan’s old games have kept it in the larger game of who is relevant in Afghanistan. As a result, Obama will ask for Pakistan’s support towards a political solution in Afghanistan. Involving Pakistan will not lead to a change in its policies, but it would allow the USto keep Pakistan engaged enough to gather insight into its future moves in Afghanistan. But what can the US realistically expect of Pakistan as a broker of peace, if not to end its support for proxies? For example, can Pakistan convince Taliban leader Mullah Mansour that recent Taliban victories in Kunduz and Badakhshan mean nothing?

After years of closely following the Taliban, the US government remains divided on how the group relates to Pakistan. A former White House National Security Council official once described Pakistan reaching out to the Afghan Taliban as a “major muscle movement,” while others in the policy community believe the Taliban’s Quetta-based leadership takes its orders from Pakistani intelligence. The truth is somewhere in between. Pakistan neither controls nor does it have the degree of influence over Afghan Pashtun groups as many suggest. Many of these groups are fed up with Pakistani involvement as well, and have tried to work around them in multiple instances, most notably in the Taliban’s ongoing reconciliation talks with the US. At the same time, the Taliban relies on its sanctuary and militants in Pakistan to run its war effort. They wouldn’t want to completely isolate their hosts by cutting them completely out of a conversation about Afghanistan’s future.

The US should proceed with caution, however, as empowering Pakistan comes with costs. Too much Pakistani involvement and consultation runs the risk of angering the Afghan government and the patchwork of stakeholders in the reconciliation process. But the risk of not including them is equally dangerous. After all, Pakistan is still a spoiler in Afghanistan. Sharif will lobby for continued financial support for Pakistan. Because Pakistan has failed to limit HQN capabilities, the US recently announced it would suspend a portion of the Coalition Support Funds (CSF), reimbursements for Pakistan’s support for the war in Afghanistan.

Pakistani officials have long stated that aid conditions mean nothing to them. But a changed assistance relationship will matter for Pakistan. Since the September 11 attacks, Pakistan has received over $31 billion in direct overt aid and military reimbursements from the US. This support was contingent upon American use of land and air routes through Pakistan to Afghanistan. With the US withdrawal underway, however, a major source of financial support for the Pakistani state is in limbo. Ground routes through Pakistan facilitated 90 per cent of US military surface cargo through Pakistan in 2009, when the UShad roughly 65,000 troops in Afghanistan. In 2014, it was reported to be at about 42 per cent, as the US planned to whittle its numbers down by the end of 2015.

Sharif will want to explore how the new Afghanistan timetable will affect US dependence on Pakistan. Will the need for supply lines continue to diminish, leaving the Pakistani economy to face the aftershocks of its decades-long dependency on the Americans? Pakistanis working in transport and other local businesses found the logistics relationship lucrative. The end of this arrangement could affect thousands of Pakistani truck drivers. Receiving over $13 billion in CSF since 2002, the Pakistani military could also feel the pinch. It has used CSF to pay for basic items for its troops, such as food and uniforms. Changes in American force posture could mean an end to this authority altogether—or a smaller version of itself, both of which could pose a financial problem for Pakistan, which includes CSF as a line item in its federal budget. One of Sharif’s priorities will be to also reverse the downward trend in the overall assistance relationship. Beyond CSF, the large programme of security, development, and economic assistance to Pakistan that has been in place since 2001 is also at risk. This includes $7.6 billion in non-CSF military aid and $10.4 billion in economic and development assistance. US support for private sector, trade, and multilateral investments also increased over the past decade and could diminish. Since 2001, US trade in goods with Pakistan gradually rose, with a 180 per cent increase in US exports to Pakistan and a 63 per cent increase in US imports from Pakistan. The Pakistani economy has also received $6.4 billion in US foreign direct investment since 2000.

The IMF has disbursed $8.6 billion in payments to Pakistan since 2001— much needed budgetary support to ease chronic balance of payment pressures.

Sharif won’t be able to prevent the inevitable—that Pakistan will get less US financial support as the war in Afghanistan slows down. But with the change in US troop levels, he can at least make the case for continued CSF levels through 2017. Doing so would also allow him to carry the military’s water a little bit longer, strengthening his poor standing with the generals and helping along his hobbled civilian government. Sharif will use Pakistan’s instability to maintain US attention. The unprecedented levels of US support were part of a whole of government approach that was guided by the notion that a stable, more prosperous Pakistan would also be a better partner in the fight against al Qaeda. This American perspective has helped to shape a chronic and dysfunctional policy of “helping Pakistan”—one that presumes if the Americans just gave enough money, then all of Pakistan’s problems would go away. Pakistan’s political elite has taken advantage of this view, perpetuating the idea of a Pakistan under siege to extract rents from a fearful US.

Because part of Sharif’s charge will be to continue his country’s lucrative patronage relationship with the US, he will emphasise threats to Pakistan from all vantage points: political, economic, regional, internal. The threat of a balance of payments crisis, nuclear war with India, domestic terror attacks, a military coup all are part of a narrative of instability that Americans subscribe to—and Pakistani leaders react to and benefit from. It would be politically unpopular and unwise for Sharif to publicly advocate for sustained US interest in Pakistan. Too many problems have transpired between the two countries over the past decade to do so with a straight face. But behind the scenes, it is a certainty that Pakistani political elites are not yet ready to accept a lesser financial relationship with the US even though they would gladly welcome less American involvement in their country.

Sharif may very well convince Obama of Pakistan’s instability and its perverse relevance to American and regional security. Recent reports indicate that the US and Pakistan have begun discussions on limiting Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities, a topic that will feature heavily in the Obama-Sharif meeting on October 22. The Taliban takeover of Kunduz, the threat of the Islamic State in South Asia, and static India-Pakistan relations will also factor into Obama’s conversation with Sharif. The US and Pakistan rarely have the luxury of foresight and planning in their relationship and the latest meeting between the two countries is unlikely to offer a new opportunity for such thinking. But it is a chance to be pragmatic and honest about what can be achieved in the latest juncture of America’s longest war.

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