The plan for a possible ‘new regional order’ has been revealed. Who gets what in the rapidly changing geopolitical realities of South Asia was hammered out in President Donald Trump’s Afghanistan and South Asia strategy last year. The policy had offered opportunities to India: “strategic partnership with India”, “India’s contributions to stability in Afghanistan” etc. It also warned of consequences for Pakistan: “safe haven for terrorist organisations”, “we can no longer be silent” etc.
To put the plan into motion, the US high officials visited the region earlier this month. As expected, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo along with the chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford had only a five hours lay-over in Islamabad but an overwhelming twenty-five hours stay in New Delhi. If nothing else, it was an indication of how America wills to forge its relationship with the region.
During all their meetings with the new Pakistani leadership, the American delegation 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, as per a statement issued by the State Department afterwards.
The ‘experienced’ foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, tried to twist, turn and spin the narrative, claiming that no demands were made of Pakistan to, as they say, “do more”. This naive reaction was as close to the last one when Secretary Pompeo had phoned Imran Khan and raised the importance of “Pakistan taking decisive action against all terrorists operating in Pakistan and its vital role in promoting the Afghan peace process”.
Contrary to the FM’s claim, Secretary Pompeo, speaking to his press pool at the PAF Nur Base, declared that, “we made clear to them that — and they agreed — it’s time for us to begin to deliver on our joint commitments. So we’ve had lots of times where we’ve talked and made agreements, but we haven’t been able to actually execute those. And so there is broad agreement between myself and Foreign Minister Qureshi, as well as with the prime minister, that we need to begin to do things that will begin to actually, on the ground, deliver outcomes so that we can begin to build confidence and trust between the two countries. That was the focus of the gathering.”
Pompeo also hinted that the security assistance to Pakistan, which was suspended as a punitive measure, could be restored if the government starts to deliver on its promises. Interestingly, the delegation also included Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad as the new special advisor on Afghan reconciliation. Khalilzad has been critical of Pakistan. He blames Afghanistan’s deteriorating security on Pakistan’s establishment; and accuses them of harbouring and aiding insurgents.
While Pakistan was asked by the delegation to earn its keep; and as a result avail the opportunity to ‘reset the relationship’ between the two countries across a broad spectrum — economic, business, and commercial — its new government reacted in bewilderment. India, on the other hand, was more receptive to the prospects of a new partnership with the US.
Indian Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj and Minister of Defence Nirmala Sitharaman welcomed their American counterparts for the inaugural US India Ministerial 2+2 Dialogue. Recognising their two countries as strategic partners and major and independent stakeholders in world affairs, the ministers committed to work together on regional and global issues, including bilateral, trilateral and quadrilateral formats, according to the joint statement sent out.
Besides designating India as a Major Defense Partner of the US, they signed the Communication Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) that would facilitate access to advanced defence systems and enable India to optimally utilise its existing US-origin platforms. There were other regional and global security related agreements as well.
They also expanded the bilateral counter-terrorism cooperation, announcing their intent to increase information-sharing efforts on known or suspected terrorists and to implement UN Security Council Resolution on returning foreign terrorist fighters. They committed to enhance their ongoing cooperation in multilateral fora such as the United Nations (UN) and Financial Action Task Force (FATF), said the joint statement issued before the crucial meeting.
It’s the same FATF that has placed Pakistan on the “grey” monitoring list allegedly for terrorism financing.
US and Indian officials mutually denounced any use of terrorist proxies in the region, and “in this context, they called on Pakistan to ensure that the territory under its control is not used to launch terrorist attacks on other countries. On the eve of the 10-year anniversary of the 26/11 Mumbai attack, they called on Pakistan to bring to justice expeditiously the perpetrators of the Mumabi, Pathankot, Uri, and other cross-border terrorist attacks,” the ministers said while welcoming the launch of a cooperation and action against terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, ISIS, Lashkar-e Taiba, Jaish-e Muhammad, Hizbul Mujahideen, the Haqqani Network, Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan, D-company, and their affiliates.
“We also discussed the situation in South Asia in some details,” Swaraj told reporters after the meeting adding that India supports President Trump’s South Asia policy. “His call for Pakistan to stop its policy of supporting cross-border terrorism finds resonance with us. We want to also ensure… the call for Pakistan to stop using terrorism as an instrument of state policy,” she said.
More importantly, both sides discussed the ongoing efforts in promoting an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, and Afghan government-controlled reconciliation process, and “this brings together all ethnic groups and political formations in the country”.
Clearly, it goes against the ambitions of Pakistan to diminish Indian influence in Afghanistan. When President Obama tried to bring India into the fold a few years ago, India had rejected the idea and systematically brought US aim down to the term Af-Pak. This time, Indians seem more willing to play their part in Afghanistan, whereas in return the Trump administration could possibly bow down to India’s amplified demands to further pressurise Pakistan or even threaten to declare it as state sponsor of terrorism.
Meanwhile, the US has also announced that it is keeping a permanent presence in the region owing to diplomatic and security interests. “And we’re going to maintain a presence to have influence in that region. The diplomatic presence, the security presence, and the form of that presence is going to change over time,” the Pentagon high officials declared late last month.
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So, besides relying heavily on China, what could be Pakistan’s strategy to catch up with the new strategic rationales and geopolitical calculations on ground is yet to be seen. As of now, any sort of bilateral relationship between Pakistan and the US has been increasingly fading, especially in the past few months. Whatever does exist is a US willing to work with Pakistan only on conditions it put forward years ago.
Pakistan, for that matter, has to think smart and act faster.