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US and Pakistan in Afghanistan
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Two different narratives seemingly appeared upon US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit. Narratives that are not new. Both US and Pakistan need to understand the thought process of each other, to then seek a common ground to achieve peace in Afghanistan.

The conflict in Afghanistan is of the pre-trump era. According to Steve Bannon Donald Trump’s ex-White House Chief Strategist, the approach adopted by Trump in any overseas engagement is only keeping in view the primary US national interests. Initially, Trump had supported military disengagement from Afghanistan then later changed it to more American boots on ground as required by the military commanders.

Trump’s administration has devised a cross mix of steps US wants to take as part of the Afghanistan policy that includes a greater number of troops on ground, a counter-terrorism operation led by the CIA and pushing Pakistan to deal more harshly with terrorists. He also envisages a greater role for India in Afghanistan.

Rex Tillerson’s recent visit to New Delhi revealed Trump’s policy to make India the key ally at two specific levels. First by giving better space to India in Afghanistan and the second to use India’s support to check China’s expansion in the Indo-Pacific region.  It was not a surprise therefore, that Ashraf Ghani went to India when Rex Tillerson did.

India will not get militarily involved in Afghanistan but will support US in security, building institutions, as well as training security personnel along with information sharing. However, India’s major involvement comes at the ‘peoples’ level by improving socio-economic conditions, by constructing infrastructure for projects and provision of more jobs.

His approach therefore during his recent visit to Pakistan was in line with Trump’s new Afghan policy. Speaking at the Bagram Airfield =during an unannounced visit he expressed the desire of his administration that moderate voices in Taliban [in Afghanistan"> find a place in the government provided they denounce violence, give up supporting terrorism in any form and commit themselves to the stability of Afghanistan. Focus with Pakistan is put on a one-point agenda: co-operation against extremists’ and flushing them from their hide-outs.

What strikes one as odd is the policy that was outlined without first sitting across the table with Pakistan to enter into a discussion on the issues faced and reassurance sought by Pakistan in order to enable them to understand US objectives under the new administration. The prior announcement of delivering a ‘tough’ message to Pakistan duly delivered and picked up by international media was a severe rebuke to Pakistan.

Instead of reaching out to Pakistan, the message delivered ahead of the visit was viewed as ‘hammering’ leading to a reaction. The government was forced to react to avoid a severe backlash at home. Tillerson upon arrival was greeted by a mid-level Foreign Office official minus any pomp usually accorded to high level visits.

Wiring of Pak-Afghan border is an important step by Pakistan with reference to targeting terrorists. Exit points need to be blocked from both ends. Pakistan will be able to flush out terrorists once escape routes are closed, same must be done by Afghanistan that will lead to a systematic cleansing.

Mutual cooperation is the key. At the same time Afghanistan must not allow India to use its territory against Pakistan, which is Pakistan’s greatest fear. CIA director Mike Pompeo a week ago stated Taliban in Afghanistan need to know it is impossible for them to cross the rugged Afghan-Pakistani border and hide inside Pakistan. However, the US must be mindful of the fact that blocking the route from Afghanistan is the responsibility of the Afghan government. Coordination and cooperation between both nations is important to achieve this objective. With a clear Afghan tilt towards India, with US support, it will not lead to a positive operational environment.

US is of the view that Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agency the ISI has connections with the terrorist groups, as expressed by General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the Senate Armed Services Committee a few days ago. This is not the first time the ISI has been so accused. In May 2009 U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said “to a certain extent, they play both sides.”  A statement given in an interview with CBC’s 60 minutes.

ISI’s first involvement in Afghanistan had come in 1979, when it partnered with the CIA to help the militants with weapons, intelligence, funds and training. Over the years, once unleashing the demon and US subsequently losing interest in the region, Pakistan, left on its own, tried to deal with this genie as best as it could. Over time and with the war on terrorism, the relationship has undergone a change. Also, the Afghan Taliban influences and/or controls 171 districts {Percentage by report of SIGAR: The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction: Feb, 2017}. They do not need Pakistan as much as they did before- holding huge tracts within their native land the need to seek safe havens elsewhere proportionally decreases.

Here the US needs to untangle the ‘real’ involvement it needs by India in Afghanistan from ‘desired’ involvement of India in Afghanistan to check China in the region. Mixing of two different goals within Afghanistan may lead to further complications. The US needs to understand the porous border situation between Pakistan and Afghanistan and the former’s vulnerability in this context.

China can play a positive role in Afghanistan’s stability. Ashraf Ghani’s first foreign trip as President was to China reflecting upon his desire to better the Chinese connection. Military aid being provided by China to the Afghan government was a first. Iran too, has a good presence in Afghanistan especially Herat.

Unfortunately, in line with its greater policies, the US will not be willing to seek input of nations in position to help bring peace in Afghanistan if it does not tie it in with the bigger picture, thereby putting peace in Afghanistan at a lesser level. This line of thought is conflicting and self-contradictory. The one country US chooses to play a larger role with is at daggers drawn with Pakistan, this exclusivity offered to India fits in with US desire to check (this is time restricted only) China in the Sino-Pacific region however conflicts with an objective to bring peace to Afghanistan.

One of the basic issues besides conflict of interest at certain levels in Afghanistan is the lack of confidence between US and Pakistan. The US has repeatedly accused Pakistan of supporting terror outfits and Pakistan has repeatedly denied this. This bridge needs to be mended by reliable interlocutors. If the US feels that the interlocutor representing Pakistan is untrustworthy, the mending will not happen.

General Durrani, General Jehangir Keramat and General Ehsan were trusted by the US. Later; General Kayani as well as probably Hussain Haqqani. Currently no one in the Foreign Office is regarded as a viable interlocutor and the US at this point is not trusting ISI. The politicians play too much to the domestic gallery and thereby most talk anti-US. What Pakistan needs is to put forward an interlocutor seen as trustworthy to the US.

It is a complex situation. Much depends on the interlocutors working issues out together and prioritizing steps with mutual respect and understanding. This becomes difficult in today’s global media environment. For the sake of peace in Afghanistan, it has to be handled rationally.
Yasmeen Aftab Ali