x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Faint hope that Pakistan and US may mend a few bridges

For the first time in months, there was a glimmer of hope last week that the United States and Pakistan may be moving towards mending a relationship that is essential to ending the war in Afghanistan.

NEW YORK // For the first time in months, there was a glimmer of hope last week that the United States and Pakistan may be moving towards mending a relationship that is essential to ending the war in Afghanistan.

The Pentagon confirmed on Thursday that two military liaison officers resumed work in Peshawar after being expelled in the wake of a Nato air strike on a border post that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. Citing Islamabad's support of Taliban factions, the US refused to apologise and Pakistan in turn closed Nato supply routes through its territory in December.

It was thought that this issue would be resolved after the Pakistani president received a last-minute invitation to a Nato summit in Chicago last month. But hopes were dashed after he was snubbed by Barack Obama, the US president, once it became clear that the supply lines would remain closed.

But symbolic gestures like the posting of the two US officers will do little to address the countries' conflicting goals, which are at the heart of the bickering over particulars and are undermining efforts to forge a political settlement among competing Afghan factions before the 2014 withdrawal, analysts say.

They warn that unless Washington and Islamabad work urgently to bring all of the groups together to negotiate a viable post-occupation government, civil war is likely and the consequences for Pakistan catastrophic.

"The way they think their interests will be protected in a peaceful Afghanistan with some semblance of stability is fundamentally different," said Moeed Yusuf, the Washington-based South Asia adviser at the US Institute of Peace. "That is what is causing a number of smaller things to become major issues."

Pakistan thinks that if the northern ethnic blocs rule the country alone, India, which supports the northern groups, will exert control over Afghanistan and threaten Pakistan's security. It also fears that if the Taliban are not included in the Afghan government in a peace deal, Afghan Taliban factions based in Pakistan will turn their guns on Pakistan.

The United States, and the other regional powers want an Afghan government that renounces Al Qaeda and is more ideologically palatable, something it believes is not possible if the Taliban are given a share of power.

"There is potential for those groups to come together and negotiate a more equal distribution of power," said Colin Cookman, a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think tank. "But it is going to be a very contentious process" and one that is being overshadowed by the fraying US-Pakistan relationship.

The Obama administration has largely sidestepped the complex diplomacy of this process by focusing its efforts on building up the Afghan National Security Forces, which will allow them to leave quickly without the costly, long-term focus on state building. Who will fund the US$4.1 billion-per-year (Dh15bn) forces was a focus of the Nato summit and will likely be the priority of next month's Afghanistan donor's meeting in Tokyo.

But there has "not been nearly enough attention on the political process as there should be and too much on the security aspect", Mr Yusuf said. "If the civilian government collapses there's no fun in having an ANSF without a state to look over it."

If Afghanistan devolves into internecine warfare, the results will be devastating for Pakistan, and could dwarf the long-lasting crises it faced in the 1990s after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, Mr Yusuf said.

Pakistan's civilian government and military are paralysed by their bad options, which is driving the isolation. "They're essentially putting their heads in the sand instead of making the tough choices," Mr Yusuf added. Crucially, Pakistan can't meet Washington's demand to dislodge the anti-US Haqqani insurgents based in its tribal areas without triggering a violent reprisal that Islamabad is ill equipped to handle.

Negative narratives in Washington and Islamabad, fuelled in part by election year politics in both countries, are also preventing the necessary cooperation. "The problem is that perceptions are more important than reality right now, and as Afghanistan doesn't look too good, in Washington more and more fingers are going to point at Pakistan and its a vicious cycle," said Mr Yusuf.

Essential to a peaceful outcome is the inclusion of the Taliban in any future political deal. But talks between the US and the insurgent factions have collapsed under internal disagreements among the militants and a botched prisoner exchange that the US agreed to and then backtracked from. "The deal is very difficult given the domestic presidential campaign, there's a lot of skepticism in Congress," said Mr Cookman.

In the short term, Washington is unlikely to disengage from Pakistan but the long-term damage could prove painful. Pakistan is overplaying its hand and it will "come back to bite us," said Ahsan Butt, a Pakistani research fellow in international security at Harvard Kennedy School of Government. "Post 2014 the US is not going to need us to the extent it does today."