Wandy Sherman, the American Deputy Secretary of State was in India and Pakistan last week. Asked for the reason of going to Pakistan on the eve of her departure from India she remarked, “We don’t see ourselves building a broad relationship with Pakistan and we have no interest in returning to the days of hyphenated India-Pakistan. That’s not where we are. That’s not where we’re going to be.”
In one stroke she placated India of any doubts where American relations with India stand. And in the same breath she laid bare the American policy choice of jettisoning Pakistan once it has outlived its utility for America. Sherman’s comment is reminiscent of 1990 when the US imposed nuclear related sanctions against Pakistan under the infamous Pressler Amendment soon after the Soviets left Afghanistan. Pakistan was no more needed.
The current cool in bi-lateral relations originates with the divergent view on how Afghanistan situation needed to be handled. Except for the initial sweep, America’s war in Afghanistan ran afoul.
As the American military got bogged down in Afghanistan, the US increasingly blamed Pakistan for the stalemate in complete ignorance of the strong tribal connections of people on either side of 2,670km long common border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Cooperating with the United States
Pakistan faced a major domestic militancy for joining the US ‘war on terror.’ Over 50 militant groups sprang up in Pakistan seeking to punish the Pakistan state for cooperating with the United States against the Afghan militants, according to Pakistan’s national security adviser Moeed Yusuf.
Close to 3.5 million Pakistanis were displaced and Pakistan lost 80,000 lives during the 20-year occupation of Afghanistan. Billions were lost in infrastructure and opportunity cost. The country still reels with its consequences. This war incited Pashtun nationalism in Pakistan.
Yet, despite best efforts, the Western world continued to press Pakistan to ‘do more.’ We did more than our state could sustain and yet every American general, senior government figure, think tank and senator is accusing Pakistan. Blaming Pakistan amounts to evading their own responsibility for an ill-conceived and commercially executed military engagement. Even much of the training of the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) was contracted out.
For people making money through conflict, prolongation made sense. After all, where did $2 trillion go? It is naive to imagine that Pakistan will continue to foster internal subversion to meet demands of outside powers.
Pakistan could ‘do no more’ without jeopardising the Pakistani state, which was never the option. Nato partners failed to appreciate that no moral argument could be stronger than Pakistan’s security interests.
Free movement of men, material and money
With majority of Pashtuns living on the Pakistan side with historic rights of free movement of men, material and money over the porous border, it is realistically not possible for Pakistan to disengage from what is happening in Afghanistan. The societal connections between the two people are deep. Instability on either side effects the other.
With better understanding of society and culture, Pakistan suggested co-opting Taliban into political mainstream as early as the 2002 Bonn Conference. But the initial flush of victory disallowed rational judgement on Afghanistan. Pakistan continued to advise the United States at the highest levels of the need to seek a negotiated settlement subsequently also. No one listened.
There was little recognition in Washington that the regime it backed in Kabul had little legitimacy. Large-scale corruption and cronyism survived on American largesse. US attempt to stamp Kabul’s authority through warlords was a bane as these are the people against whom the Taliban had initially risen during the 1990s.
The collapse of such a regime was inevitable but the surprise is how quickly it dissipated. No one answers why ANSF folded within days without a fight? — because they sensed the pulse of the ordinary Afghans and thus had no gumption to stand for the regime.
Instead of helping stabilise the new government that promises to bring peace to this war-torn country, the Western countries show antipathy, jeopardising lives of millions of innocent Afghans. The US has gone a step further by freezing about $9.5 billion of Afghan central bank assets, which legitimately belong to the Afghan people.
Expecting the Taliban to perform and make the state function with their hands tied at the back is insensitive. It is time that the international community comes forward to rescue the Afghan society from sinking again into poverty and conflict.
The American foreign policy establishment may well remember what the Chinese Prime Minister Chou En Lai said to Henry Kissinger on July 11, 1971 after his secret visit to Beijing arranged by Pakistan — do not forget the bridge you have crossed to reach China.
Sajjad Ashraf served as an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore from 2009 to 2017. He was a member of Pakistan Foreign Service from 1973 to 2008 and served as ambassador to several countries.