South Asia is likely to remain a key area of focus for the United States as it has wide-ranging economic and security interests in the region. Recent skirmishes along the Line of Control in disputed Kashmir region between India and Pakistan have pushed back hopes for resumption of Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue (CBD) process – considered vital to a peaceful South Asia.
Afghanistan, where US still maintains thousands of forces, remains unstable and weak despite years of fight against terrorism.
India and Pakistan agreed to resume the CBD December last year in Islamabad when India’s External Affair Minister, Ms. Sushma Swaraj visited Islamabad to participate in the Heart of Asia meeting. However, the CBD never took off due to the terror attacks on Pathankot Airbase in January 2016 and some subsequent incidents, for which, India blamed Pakistan-based terror groups, heightening tensions between the two nuclear armed countries.
After the indigenous and spontaneous uprising in Kashmir valley against Indian rule and clampdown and a militant attack on Indian military base in Uri – which Indian officials claimed was carried out by Pakistan-based outfits – New Delhi boycotted the 19th SAARC summit that was to be held in Islamabad on 15 and 16th November 2016.
Since then, the two countries have been engaged in a tense diplomatic standoff.
However, Pakistani Prime Minister’s top adviser on the foreign affairs Sartaj Aziz recently conveyed to India that Pakistan will be attending the Heart of Asia (HoA) conference being held in Amritsar on December 3 and 4.
If the visit materializes, it would be the first high level visit by Pakistan after the announcement of CBD in December last year. Mr. Aziz was quoted as saying that, “Unlike India, that had sabotaged the SAARC summit in Pakistan by pulling out, Pakistan will respond by participating in the Heart of Asia (conference) being held in India. It’s a good opportunity to defuse the tension.”
American experts on South Asia have long believed that peace in Afghanistan is heavily dependent on the normalized relations between India and Pakistan. For decades, Afghanistan has been the battlefield for India-Pakistan rivalry, where they are waging their proxy war.
During the Taliban regime in 1990s, Pakistan and some Middle Eastern countries recognized the Taliban rule and Islamabad worked on the “Strategic Depth” doctrine. India, which does not share a border with Afghanistan, backed Northern Alliance along with Russia and Iran to fight the Taliban and Pakistani influence.
As the US invaded Afghanistan following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and overthrew the Taliban government in late 2001, a number of Afghan and al-Qaeda militants crossed the Afghan border into Pakistani tribal areas – which proved costly for both the neighboring countries and the US goal of stabilizing Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, the George W Bush Administration diverted its attention and resources away from Afghanistan to Iraq for invasion of the Arab country in 2003. That, along with incompetence of the Afghan government, gave rise to an environment of suspicion and India-Pakistan competition on the Afghan territory.
The new government in Afghanistan – which had leanings towards India – hosted the Baloch insurgents and allowed India to stoke militancy and terrorism in Balochistan.
Pakistan served as a vital supplies route for the US and NATO forces presence and operations against the Taliban but as Kabul failed to govern the country and the Taliban insurgency became fierce, the US media and some leaders on the Capitol Hill began questioning Islamabad’s role.
Pakistani intelligence agency ISI was alleged to be playing a double game and assisting or overlooking the Afghan Taliban activities on its soil.
But the US and Pakistan continued an effective cooperation against al-Qaeda during the period.
After the US embassy in Kabul was attacked in 2011, in which 7 people died and 19 wounded, the US Navy Admiral, Adm. Mike Mullen — Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — during his final congressional testimony before retiring, said, “success in Afghanistan is threatened by the Pakistani government’s support for the Haqqani network of militants, which,” in his words, was “a ‘veritable arm’ of Pakistan’s intelligence agency.”
But since 2013, Pakistan has launched a series of operations in North Waziristan and other parts of the tribal areas, clearing them of the militants. Pakistan once again came under scrutiny after Mullah Akhter Mansour’s assassination by the CIA drone in Balochistan with questions raised how the militant was able to travel to Iran and other parts of Middle East on a Pakistani passport.
Both Pakistan and Afghanistan also blamed each others’ intelligence agencies for the leaks about the death of Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, at critical time when the second round of peace talks between Afghan government and Taliban was about to begin. Questions were raised about his whereabouts and medical treatment in Pakistan,
RECENT DEVELOPMENTS AND ASSESSMENTS
Meanwhile, India, under ultra-nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has openly claimed backing militancy in Pakistan’s Balochistan province and its national security advisers have threatened with further trouble in the province which is connecting China with the Gulf region through Gwadar port.
Recently, former US military commander Gen (R) David Petraeus, appeared to debunk some of the misgivings about Pakistan.
Answering a question at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) – where the commander talked about issues which will be faced by the next US administration in the future – Petraeus reportedly remarked that during his long association with his Pakistani counterparts and interaction with ISI as head of CIA, he could never find a convincing piece of evidence which supported the alleged double game by ISI or its explicit support to elements associated with terrorism.
According to Pakistani newspaper The News, Petraeus said: “I was never as convinced as some journalists are that Inter-Services Intelligence Organization, my counterpart when I was director of CIA, and as an individual within my relationship when I was in CENTCOM in Afghanistan as well and as well as the Chief of Army Staff, I was never convinced that there was as explicit support as some have alleged is the case. It’s very difficult situation to try to understand. There is no question about communications between ISI and some of these groups but some of that is actually what you would do when you are an intelligence service anyway.”
THE TRUMP ADMINISTRATION AND THE WAY FORWARD
Now, in a changed environment, the new US administration, under President-elect Donald Trump, could play a vital role toward bringing India and Pakistan back to the CBD course because of Washington’s leverage on both countries.
The new administration will be well-placed to convince India and Pakistan about the importance of improved relations, particularly if they resolve their Kashmir tensions and focus on expanding trade and economic relations.
In October, the then Republican candidate Donald Trump, told The Hindustan Times that he would be willing to play a role as a mediator between India and Pakistan to reduce their tensions
According to the Times, he said, “If it was necessary I would do that. If we could get India and Pakistan getting along, I would be honored to do that. That would be a tremendous achievement… I think if they wanted me to, I would love to be the mediator or arbitrator.”
In Pakistan, the army – backed by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and commanded by General Raheel Sharif – in recent years conducted a largely successful Zarb e Azb operation, which eliminated a large number of militants of “all hues” from the federally administered tribal areas. More recently, an attack on a shrine in Baluchistan is being blamed on the Afghan Taliban, which according to Pakistani media analysts, may further strengthen Pakistan’a counterterrorism approach and resolve.
It is clear from recent developments and post-9-11 US engagement with the region that Washington needs to work cooperatively – both in economic and security fields – with Pakistan to stabilize Afghanistan and the region.
As pledged by successive US leaders, Afghanistan should not be allowed to again become a launching pad for terrorism against the United States and the region.
The start of the Trump Administration on January 20, 2017 and Islamabad’s continued democratic development as well as prosecution of the fight against terror – which will likely continue under new army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa- provide a window of opportunity for both the United States and Pakistan to work together for lasting peace in Afghanistan and the region.
Washington’s diplomacy would have to be accompanied by a focus on improvement in Afghan governance and regional economic and trade cooperation to “disincentivize” any hedging bets by regional players.