Day: October 19, 2017
In August, US President Trump announced a new plan concerning Afghanistan that included a harsh stance on Pakistan, accusing the country of protecting terrorists and threatening to limit financial support. On October 11, the Middle East Institute hosted a panel titled “Where Are U.S.-Pakistan Relations Headed?” to explore Pakistan’s reaction to the plan, the interests of the US and Pakistan in Afghanistan, US policy options, and predictions for the future of US-Pakistan relations. The event featured Daniel Markey and Joshua White of Johns Hopkins University, Shuja Nawaz of the Atlantic Council, and Moeed Yusuf of the U.S. Institute of Peace. Marvin Weinbaum of the Middle East Institute moderated.
Pakistan has reacted mainly by working to create ties with other states in case its relations with the US worsen, while also making efforts to maintain its relations with the US. Nawaz pointed to recent visits of members of the Pakistani government to Washington as maintenance efforts. Efforts to diversify include Pakistan’s strengthening of relations with Russia and Saudi Arabia, and finding alternatives to the benefits it currently receives from the US, such as military support, by looking to countries such as China and Russia to provide equipment.
Yusuf categorized general Pakistani reactions and viewpoints into three camps: one perspective questions the utility of engaging with the US, since the US seems to be intentionally siding with India to “undercut” Pakistan. Another advocates for engagement with the US because of the extent to which Pakistan is dependent on it. A third camp views the US as completely in control of relations between the two countries, suggesting that there are limited options available to Pakistan.
Markey viewed Pakistan’s approach as a sort of negotiation, in which Pakistan is actively pursuing further details on the plan and its possible impacts, and exploring ways in which it can meet US demands in a way that would allow Pakistan to continue pursuing its own agenda.
The clear tension and divisions between the US and Pakistan prompted Weinbaum to ask the panelists whether the two countries have similar interests in Afghanistan and what their respective desired outcomes are. While it may appear that the US and Pakistan have converging interests, such as restoration of stability, the panelists agreed that such a convergence is superficial or limited at best.
White explained that Pakistan’s goals in Afghanistan, and particularly in terms of positive outcomes, are unclear, a point that Pakistan’s lack of strong players in Afghanistan supports. Yusuf mentioned two points of divergence: Pakistan and the US define stability in Afghanistan differently, with Pakistan insisting that India’s absence would be necessary, and the US advocating for an Indian role. The second point of divergence is Pakistan’s view that Afghanistan is becoming the site of a cold war dynamic with Pakistan and China on one side, and the US and India on another, leading to the assumption that the US is using this dynamic “to undermine Chinese influence.”
Most significantly, Markey pointed to a divergence in how the two countries see Pakistan’s overall role in the US Afghanistan strategy. Pakistan has wanted the US to eventually “outsource” its Afghanistan strategy to Islamabad, while US intentions have been quite the opposite: containing Pakistan’s power and limiting its control, ultimately facilitating the achievement of US goals.
The panelists turned to assessing current US policies and future options with regards to Pakistan. One of the administration’s current tactics is to make clear to Pakistan that it would be more beneficial to the US to cease the relationship than to maintain it, according to White. The US is also working to include other parties, such as its NATO allies, in its Afghanistan strategy. A limitation on US actions is its inability to compel Pakistan militarily, as its current policies prevent it from targeting Taliban militants. Markey noted that the US seems “predisposed” to pursuing compulsion as a strategy and that it has been doing that through actions such as threatening to revoke Pakistan’s status as a major non-NATO ally.
Markey made three main policy recommendations: that the US clarify its goals, that it anticipate Pakistani reactions and plan accordingly, and that it include other countries in the region when studying how policies will affect Afghanistan, suggesting that actions that the US takes in Afghanistan necessarily affect Pakistan and its other neighbors.
Adding a Pakistani perspective, Nawaz stated that Pakistan does not have the same power as the US, particularly in terms of its troops, but it does have its own options should the US exert pressure. One such option is Pakistan’s ability to close its airspace, which is strategic to the US and would force it to resort to other, less convenient routes. Taking this into account, Nawaz reiterated that the US should also be considering other regional actors in its Afghanistan policies, should be aware that Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan each have elections upcoming, and that it should broaden its options, suggesting that it should consider Iran’s role in stabilizing Afghanistan.
Yusuf criticized the US approach to Pakistan as a whole. Compulsion, threats, and other such tactics have all been unsuccessfully employed in the past. There is no reason, therefore, to believe that conditions have changed enough to make this approach successful today. Yusuf reemphasized the importance of having clear messages, plans, and strategies and urged the US to ensure that its demands of Pakistan are realistic and doable in order to engage Pakistan in the restabilization of Afghanistan.
Hypotheticals emerged multiple times throughout the event, with panelists’ analyses dependent on whether or not certain conditions prove to be true in the coming months and years. Thus, the difficulty of predicting the future of US-Pakistan relations and how this relationship will affect Afghanistan was clear. Both countries need to prepare for a variety of scenarios that include other allies and partnerships. Any outcome will have a profound effect not only on Pakistan and the US role in Afghanistan but on many other countries in the region and beyond.