As Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif gears up to go to Washington for a ‘working visit’, the US has unleashed two of its “agenda points” for the trip: a civil- nuclear deal (with a lot of strings attached) and a Pakistani push for Afghan peace talks against the backdrop of an extended US presence in Afghanistan. These came even as Pakistan was ingesting the US claim that its ISI operatives were the reason for the US strike on a hospital in Kunduz city run by Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which killed 24 people.
The Pakistan Army rebutted the claims that ISI played any role in the seizure of Kunduz and described it as an attempt to deflect the pressure US had been facing for ‘its reckless’ use of force and warned that such approach could negatively affect its cooperation with the US to stabilize Afghanistan.
The other issues already on the table include US National Security Adviser, Susan Rice’s suggestion of halting reimbursements (Coalition Support Fund) for Pakistani counterterrorism operations unless Islamabad acts more forcefully against the Haqqani network. Pakistan is also being pressed to act decisively against the Lashkar-e-Taiba. Amongst this ’jostling’ is also this narrative back home that Sharif is headed to Washington to do a la-Modi as “with improved security and a relatively stable macro-economic environment, Pakistan is well placed today to promote rapid, investment-led growth”.
According to the New York Times, the Obama administration is exploring a deal to help Pakistan join the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) if it would agree to limit the scope of its nuclear arsenal, the fastest-growing on earth. The key concerns being, one, the likelihood of Pakistan deploying a small tactical nuclear weapon that would be far harder to secure and, two, preventing Pakistan from deploying some long-range missiles that could reach well beyond India. Pakistan, of course denies the existence of any such offer.
Pakistan has been quite prickly on any discussion regarding its nuclear arsenal post the Iran nuclear deal. Sartaj Aziz, who was recently ousted from the position of Pakistan’s NSA, while speaking to BBC Urdu recently said that the US should “refrain from fanning instability in South Asia and its actions should not increase strategic and conventional imbalance in the region to the extent that there is a threat to regional security”. He also said efforts were under way to make Pakistan a member of the NSG, and was hopeful that both Pakistan and India would be accepted as members of the NSG, together.
The events at Kunduz, Afghanistan the last month appear to have prompted President Obama to reverse his initial plan to withdraw almost all of the U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the time he demits office.
Under the revised plan US will now maintain the current deployment of 9,800 soldiers through next year (2016) and when Obama’s term ends in 2017, at least 5,500 troops will continue to be deployed across three more bases besides Kabul, including Bagram to the north of Kabul; in Jalalabad in the east of the country, and near Kandahar in southern Afghanistan.
The move tinged by internal political consequences, assures that the next US President will still have some major decisions to make on US engagement in Afghanistan. The Afghan government issued a statement late on 15 October praising the announcement which came after President Ghani had asserted that his government would not seek Pakistani facilitation for talks with the Taliban anymore.
In response to Obama’s announcement, the Afghan Taliban reiterated their conditions of the withdrawal of foreign forces and establishment of an Islamic government for any peace process to start. Sartaj Aziz, meanwhile, expressed optimism that traditional lull in insurgency during winter could provide an opportunity for the resumption of talks. Pakistani Foreign Office Spokesman speaking at the weekly media briefing, said: “We hosted the first round (at Murree) and we always remain ready to host another round if the Afghan government wants that. There was also this subtext that as a consequence of change in US plans, Pakistan’s leverage in playing a role in the Afghan peace talks has appreciably diminished”.
During the visit, the Pakistani Prime Minister will do a lot more than just brief Obama on the state of Pakistani efforts to facilitate negotiations with the Afghan Taliban. Top civil and military leaders have fine tuned Nawaz’s agenda a day after US President Barack Obama announced a delay in the drawdown of coalition troops from Afghanistan. Sharif will also discuss with the US administration the new regional alliances. A comprehensive presentation on the regional stability is on the cards with particular reference to the roles of China and India.
Sharif will also discuss with the US authorities Pakistan’s need for the Coalition Support Funds, defence equipment and civil nuclear technology. Pakistani delegation is likely to take up the role of Afghan government in the collapse of talks with the Afghan Taliban and present Kabul in a negative light. The underlying message will be that the goodwill created between the two countries during the President Ghani’s earlier days in office has been dissipated.
But besides his nukes, the trickiest issue Nawaz is likely to negotiate at the White House will be the Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan.
After the setbacks that followed Murree, which provided an opening for Taliban’s territorial gains and consequently a very weak negotiating position for the Kabul government, the US government has brought its focus back on the Taliban havens in Pakistan. This is borne out by the selection of US bases post 2016. US would be taking a cue from Pakistan’s UN ambassador statement in the Security Council: “What Pakistan will be unable to do is bring the Afghan Taliban to the table while it is being asked simultaneously to kill them.” Since Pakistan cannot bring the Taliban for negotiation, the other option is quite clear.
Fearing “a do more” missive from the White House, Pakistani diplomacy has been in an over-drive. Pakistani Defence Minister went on record to say that that Russia’s current military operation against the IS and other terrorist groups is helpful for Syria and the whole region. This even as a contingent of 57 Saudi personnel has arrived in Pakistan to take part in 12-day counter-terrorism exercises which would conclude on Oct 31 and involve Pakistani and Saudi Special Forces. The exercises, codenamed Al-Shahab I, will be held at the National Counter-terrorism Training Centre (NCTC), near Kharian. A first for the two countries in the domain of counter-terrorism exercises; they have in the past participated in joint military war games, called Al-Samsam.
Therefore the question remains: will Pakistani duplicity in Afghanistan, developments in the Middle East, the successful conclusion of a nuclear deal with Iran and the growing US fatigue in its ‘War on Terror’ finally see Obama take steps to rein in Pakistan and its military? Or will be ‘business as usual’ – more US funds in the guise of humanitarian and development aid and high-tech weaponry for Pakistani “counter-terrorism” efforts?
In diplomacy optics have never been a true indicator of the outcomes – a lesson India has taken over the years from the multi-layered US-Pak relations. It is quite possible that the outcome of Nawaz Sharif’s current visit to Washington, despite the preceding pyrotechnics, will disappoint India.
*Monish Gulati is the Associate Director of Society for Policy Studies. He can be reached at [email protected]. This article appeared at South Asia Monitor.