High-level requests

Syeda Mamoona Rubab on what went well at the Rex Tillerson visit

High-level requests
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Pakistani leaders at their meeting in Islamabad struggled to reach common ground on bridging the trust gap and addressing their differences over regional issues that have been weighing down the relationship.

But, importantly they agreed to continue the ‘high-level’ dialogue in search of an elusive convergence of regional interests that could possibly lead them to a sincere partnership. “The two sides agreed to build upon the understandings reached in the dialogue process and to continue the pace and scope of high-level engagements in future,” a post-meeting statement from the Prime Minister’s Office said. This was perhaps the only substantive thing mentioned in the statements from both sides, which otherwise contained reiteration of their respective positions.

Defense Secretary James Mattis would be the next high-level visitor from Washington.

It would be wrong to imply that Mr Tillerson’s trip was a failure given that the outcome was very much according to expectation. However, it did come as a bit of surprise for some who had been carried away by the positivity in the relationship witnessed over the past fortnight or so following the recovery of American-Canadian family that had been held hostage by the Haqqani Network for years.
From the American side, the key problem is the alleged presence of terrorist sanctuaries on Pakistani territory, whereas for Pakistanis the idea of giving a regional security role to India is troublesome

The effusive praise from President Trump and his administration after the rescue mission gave the impression that the acrimony had suddenly melted away. Not only did laymen suffer from this delusion, but the Foreign Office too had given a somewhat similar assessment of the state of affairs in bilateral ties with the US. At his last weekly media briefing, FO Spokesman Nafees Zakaria said, while referring to recent interactions with US leaders: “There had been many positive developments in our relations with the United States, which resulted in better understanding and increasing cooperation.”

But, as a matter of fact the core problems straining ties have remained despite an apparent improvement in atmospherics. From the American side, the key problem is the alleged presence of terrorist sanctuaries on Pakistani territory, whereas for Pakistanis the idea of giving a regional security role to India is troublesome.

Mr Tillerson had even before landing in Islamabad made it clear through his media comments at Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan that relations with Pakistan would be conditional to Islamabad delivering on the “specific requests” that had been made by the Trump Administration. Speaking to the embassy staff before heading to PM House for a meeting with Pakistani leaders, he said he was in Islamabad to further talk about President Trump’s South Asia strategy. “Many of the solutions to the regional challenges are – have to be found here,” he maintained.

This is the context in which this meeting has to be seen. “The Secretary reiterated President Trump’s message that Pakistan must increase its efforts to eradicate militants and terrorists operating within the country,” the US Embassy said about what was discussed at the meeting.

This message, exhorting Pakistani leaders to step up their counter-terrorism effort, which Islamabad says is already producing results, is in effect another way of telling them that the US wants action against the Taliban and Haqqani Network sanctuaries. It is just that the message on safe havens has been re-packaged because Pakistani leaders found the mention of sanctuaries offensive.
It is just that the message on safe havens has been re-packaged because Pakistani leaders found the mention of sanctuaries offensive

The only positive thing to have happened in Pakistan–US dialogue is that the Americans try to sound more respectful towards Pakistani leaders. The reaction in Pakistan after President Trump’s speech in which he announced his South Asia strategy made US officials realize that Pakistanis cannot be browbeaten by tough talk. Therefore, instead of a complete breakdown, Washington is keeping the communication channels open by lowering its rhetoric on the alleged terror safe havens. This partly explains the praise showered on Pakistan after the Boyle-Coleman family recovery. According to one official, the recovery of the American citizen along with her husband and children was used as an opportunity by Washington to repair the damage caused by Trump’s harsh comments about Pakistan.

Otherwise, there is little acknowledgment of the security concerns that Pakistan has been expressing, especially with respect to India, which were also repeated during the meeting with Mr Tillerson. This indifference to Pakistani security fears is rooted in the American strategic vision for the region in which India is firmly embedded.

Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi has, meanwhile, reaffirmed his government’s commitment to continue fighting terrorism and “going ahead with the US in building the relationship”. But, there is little information available publicly to suggest if Pakistan had made any specific commitments for the fulfillment of the “specific requests” made by the US.

Pakistanis, on their part, too realize that walking away is not an option for them. Islamabad and Washington’s expediencies are therefore keeping the two together despite all the problems in their relationship.

Mr Tillerson may have stayed in Islamabad for a few hours, but his trip did not end here. He travelled to India from Pakistan. He will be closely watched there for what he says and what he doesn’t and any eventual assessment of his Pakistan trip by the observers would include his stay in India.

One promising thing that emerged from the Islamabad meeting is that the civilian and military leadership put up a joint front to counter any impression about a civil-military rift in Islamabad. It was all too important after Mr Tillerson on more than one occasions expressed concerns about the stability of Pakistan government.

“We have concerns about the future of Pakistan’s government too, in terms of them — we want their government to be stable,” Mr Tillerson had earlier said after meeting Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif in Washington earlier this month.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad and can be reached at mamoonarubab@gmail.com or @bokhari_mr

Timeline of Pakistan-US ties

1980s: The US pumps weapons, money and foreign fighters into Afghanistan to support mujahideen fighters defeat Soviet troops in Afghanistan.

1990: The US imposes sanctions on Pakistan over Islamabad’s nuclear programme. With the Soviet Union routed in Afghanistan and the Cold War ending, Pakistan had lost its importance as a regional ally.

1998: The US imposes sanctions on Pakistan and India over nuclear tests.

1999: Washington imposes more sanctions on Pakistan after COAS Pervez Musharraf topples a democratically elected government in a military coup.

2001: After Sept. 11, the US asks Musharraf to help track down al Qaeda and remove the Taliban from power. Pakistan turns on its former Taliban allies and arrests al Qaeda leaders. Washington removes all sanctions.

2004: Bush’s administration designates Pakistan a “major non-NATO ally”.

2011: CIA contractor Raymond Davis kills two Pakistanis but is acquitted and allowed to leave Pakistan. US troops kill Osama bin Laden in May 2011. NATO helicopters and fighter jets attack Pakistani military outposts by accident, killing 24 soldiers. Pakistan retaliates by blocking a NATO supply route through its territory to Afghanistan for more than seven months.

2016: US Congress blocks the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan. Military aid to Pakistan reduced.

2017: President Donald Trump outlines a new South Asia policy. He accuses Pakistan of harbouring “agents of chaos” and providing safe havens to militant groups waging an insurgency against the US-backed government in Kabul.

Source: Reuters