Tillerson’s Pakistan visit and US Strategy in Afghanistan

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Amid fraying Pak-US relations, the frosty reception meted out to a high-ranking US official sparked a lot of debate. The US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson’s, recent visit to Pakistan was the first, after a long time, by a senior US official and came only months after Trump accused Pakistan of harboring “agents of chaos”. Tillerson was greeted by the US Ambassador David Hale and a mid-level Pakistani Foreign Office official at the military airport in Rawalpindi. Several observers pointed to how this welcome blatantly lacked the protocol that traditionally accompanies high-level visits from the US to Pakistan.

Even before Tillerson landed in Islamabad, the intention prompting the visit was made fairly obvious: the Trump administration wanted to further push Pakistan to take action against militant proxies that allegedly find shelter within its borders.

In a previous interview, Tillerson stated the new US strategy towards Pakistan is guided by a “conditions-based approach”; more reconciliation opportunities in Afghanistan will be created only as Pakistan takes action to crush and neutralize entities threatening Afghan stability.

“We have made some very specific requests of Pakistan in order for them to take action to undermine the support the Taliban … and other terrorist organizations receive,” Tillerson said after his meeting with Afghan leaders. “We’ve said in this whole strategy this is a conditions-based approach, and so our relationship with Pakistan will also be conditions-based.”

Tillerson underlined that he felt that Pakistan needed to “take a clear-eyed view of the situation that they’re confronted with in terms of the number of terrorist organizations that find safe haven inside of Pakistan.”

Pakistan on the other hand has repeatedly denied US accusations, restating multiple times that it is harboring no militant proxies. Regardless, the US remains unmoved. Its approach is clear: unless Pakistan removes the Afghan Taliban’s alleged support bases from its territory, Afghan peace will continue to be in shambles.

Tillerson’s message echoed the same sentiments as Trump’s August speech on the new US Afghan policy. Tillerson said, “Pakistan has much to lose by continuing to harbor criminals and terrorists. It’s time for Pakistan to demonstrate its commitment to civilization, order, and peace.”

Any Afghan policy where the US and Pakistan are not on the same page is highly unlikely to come to fruition. It is important to consider then: given that the two do not share the same view of strategic interests in the Afghan region, is it even possible to craft a single plan on the Afghan situation, especially one that will involve bilateral cooperation?

The way Washington sees the situation, Pakistan and its continued ‘support’ for militant proxies is the number one reason behind the failure of the restoration process for peace and stability in Afghanistan.

Moreover recently, the dramatic rescue of an American-Canadian couple held hostage by the Haqqani Network made headlines. Pakistan won praise from top US leadership including President Trump for its security forces’ swift rescue of American Caitlin Coleman and her Canadian husband, along with their children.

Trump, in a statement, said the release of the hostages showed Pakistan was complying with “America’s wishes for it to do more to provide security in the region”. After the release of the family, Pakistani officials emphasized the importance of co-operation and intelligence sharing. Many hoped the rescue will help alter Washington’s stance on Pakistan.

Islamabad used this opportunity to highlight the country’s dedication and commitment to the fight against terrorism. Washington on the other hand termed the incident as an indication of Pakistan’s new policy, wherein Pakistan has chosen to respect America’s wishes.

On the contrary, however, the way the recent Tillerson visit went, it has become somewhat obvious that Islamabad isn’t as keen on acquiescing to US demands as Washington may have let on. Not only was Tillerson welcomed rather quietly with only a mid-level Pakistani Foreign Office official showing up at the military airport, but the content of Tillerson’s speech, which he delivered during his brief four hour stay in Pakistan also indicated the lack of trust in the relationship from both sides. It addressed none of Pakistan’s concerns related to India’s role, and the role of the Afghan government in exacerbating the conflict, Tillerson chose instead to continue stressing on the need for Pakistan to “do more”. From Pakistan’s perspective, presently it seems as though the US, Afghanistan and India are growing closer together—causing Pakistan to feel increasingly isolated in the region.

Irrespective of India’s economic prowess and much superior growth trajectory, Pakistan seeks parity with the country. Pushing India into Afghanistan, and not fully gauging the consequences of the bloody history between Pakistan and India, is rash on America’s part and is only likely to increase regional tensions. The trust deficit in the Pak-US relationship is becoming more obvious by the day. It is in Islamabad’s long term interests to keep Washington as a cooperative ally. The two must attempt to address each other’s interests in the Afghan region. If Trump is to go back into Afghanistan, guns blazing to fight terrorism, Pakistan and the US will have to work together for the sake of regional peace and stability.

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