Grim Regional Outlook

Grim Regional Outlook
Nawaz Sharif’s trip to Washington last week is significant because it comes in the wake of certain important developments in the South Asian region that impact Pakistan’s national security.

First, it follows a meeting between India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Barack Obama in which both spelt out their joint “vision”, including core mutual concerns relating to terrorism allegedly emanating from Pakistan that impinges on Indian and American interests. “The leaders stressed the need for joint and concerted efforts, including the dismantling of safe havens for terrorist and criminal networks, to disrupt all financial and tactical support for networks such as Al Qaeda, Lashkar-e Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, the D-Company, and the Haqqanis. They reiterated their call for Pakistan to bring the perpetrators of the November 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai to justice.” This puts the spotlight squarely on Pakistan for harbouring these networks.

Second, President Obama’s decision to retain nearly 10,000 US troops in Afghanistan until 2017 is based on one critical projection: Pakistan is tasked to bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table during this period and facilitate a power sharing arrangement with Kabul that ends the civil war and enables US troops to go home without fear of the Afghan regime collapsing and paving the way for the Taliban or ISIS or both to make it a base area for exporting Islamic extremism. The US-Pak Joint Statement makes especial mention of this factor by devoting nearly 700 words to it, emphasizing Pakistan’s role as “a key counterterrorism partner of the US”, in particular relating to efforts to “degrade and ultimately defeat al?Qa’ida and its affiliates …. commitment to advance an Afghan­owned and -led peace and reconciliation process between the Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban” that leads to “a sustainable peace settlement.” Interestingly, Mr Sharif “reaffirmed that Pakistan’s territory will not be used against any other country” and both leaders “affirmed that regional peace and stability required the prevention of attacks across the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.” Mr Sharif also assured the US President that Pakistan is taking steps “to ensure that the Taliban – including the Haqqani Network – are unable to operate from the soil of Pakistan.” Both leaders stressed improvement in Pakistan-India bilateral relations and “expressed concern over violence along the Line of Control”, and “emphasized the importance of working together to address mutual concerns of India and Pakistan regarding terrorism”. Mr Sharif reiterated Pakistan’s “resolve to take effective action against United Nations-designated terrorist individuals and entities, including Lashkar-e-Tayyiba and its affiliates, as per its international commitments and obligations under UN Security Council resolutions and the Financial Action Task Force.” Both leaders noted that need for “all [S Asian] neighbors to suppress all extremist and militant groups operating in the region … [especially] emerging terrorist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)/Da’esh in South Asia.”

The problem with this agenda is that Pakistan’s National Security Establishment has promised to deliver it to the US for the last ten years but done nothing much to advance it. Despite early optimism, relations with Kabul and New Delhi have hit rock bottom recently. The latest US engagement is a last ditch effort to find a way out of a dead end with Pakistan. Washington has pledged to cough up the balance of US$300 million in coalition support funds and allow Pakistan to buy 8 new F-16 aircraft. It has also decided not to take any discriminatory action against Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program and policies.

Here’s Pakistan’s problem. First, it doesn’t have the will or ability to arm-twist the Afghan Taliban to do its bidding blindly on making a peace deal with Kabul and ending the war, especially after the eruption of a post-Mullah Omar power struggle in which each contending faction is compelled to take a war-like stance against Kabul and Washington for purposes of legitimacy in its rank and file. Second, it can’t afford to bomb the Haqqani network in its safe havens in Pakistan’s border areas and drive it into Afghanistan. That would cut its leverage-links with an important Afghan Taliban faction and also provoke it to join hands with the Pakistan Taliban sheltering in Afghanistan. This would exacerbate the internal security situation in Pakistan that the military has barely brought down to manageable proportions after a long and bloody campaign across the country. Third, it can’t afford to go after the various anti-India jihadi groups scattered across the country just now even if it wanted to because that would open up another dangerous front and dissipate the energy of the military against the Pakistan Taliban. The question of whether or not it should even think of serious action against the Lashkar i Taiba, etc, when India continues to sponsor terrorism in FATA, Karachi and Balochistan remains moot.

Under the circumstances, the outlook is grim. Neither Islamabad nor Kabul can singly deliver on the regional agenda, India isn’t helping the common cause and the Taliban have time to create the will and space to achieve their objectives.

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.