No change in America’s Pak-Afghan policy -Express Tribune

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With a bruised sense of pride, the recent introduction of the Afghanistan Counterterrorism, Oversight, and Accountability Act by Republican senators has set off alarm bells within Pakistan, becoming the topic of emotive discussion all around. However, it does not come as a surprise to those who had kept a tab on America’s strategic policy in the region.

Bashing Biden for a haphazard withdrawal from Afghanistan, movers of the bill anticipate grave implications. They are critical of abandoning an unknown number of American citizens and Afghan partners in Afghanistan because of a renewed terror threat against the US while the Taliban seek recognition at the UN despite suppressing the rights of Afghan women and girls.

The intent and purpose of the bill is to focus on the continued evacuation of American citizens, legal permanent residents and Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) holders stranded in Afghanistan. It also suggests strategies and supervision for continued counterterrorism in Afghanistan — sanction the Taliban for terrorism and human rights abuses; authorise sanctions for individuals and foreign countries providing support to the Taliban; and place restrictions on non-humanitarian foreign assistance to Afghanistan along with a cumbersome process for SIV application and more oversight mechanisms.

The most alarming part of the bill is that it seeks to assess Pakistan’s alleged role in Afghanistan before and after the fall of Kabul and in the Taliban offensive in the Panjshir Valley.

The report also seeks “an assessment of support by state and non-state actors, including the government of Pakistan, for the Taliban between 2001 and 2020”, as well as the provision of sanctuary space, financial support, intelligence support, logistics and medical support, training, equipping, and tactical operation or strategic direction.

The legislation also requires “an assessment of support by state and non-state actors, including the government of Pakistan, for the September 2021 offensive of the Taliban against the Panjshir Valley and the Afghan resistance”.

The move is not only condemnable but also an admission of the follies of the Trump (Republican) and Biden (Democrat) administrations. However, it is not a bolt from a blue.

All assessments made in the past ever since 9/11 have directly or indirectly been targeting us for running with the hare and hunting with the hounds — hence the demands “to do more”, always suspecting us for being soft.

In this context, the book Obama’s Wars is an illustration of the American way of thinking, of which Biden was also a part. Based on the assessment of Barack Obama, Joe Biden and Bruce Riedel, the Pak-Afghan strategy was drawn. This quote from the book best describes their collective views: “Pakistan had to end its complex, schizophrenic relationship with terrorists in which they are ‘the patron and the victim and the safe haven all at the same time’.”

A textual analysis of discussions between the then US President, Obama, and his military and civil advisers could provide us identifying realities such as the US did not want to remain engaged militarily in Afghanistan for an indefinite period and instead wanted an early end to the conflict but wanted to enforce a solution on its own terms. The US saw Afghanistan and Pakistan as part of one problem needing a cohesive strategy.

There are many references to Pakistan in the mentioned book as a difficult and dangerous country to deal with. For instance, Obama presiding over a strategy review meeting opened the discussion with this observation: “Let’s start where our interests take us, which is really Pakistan, not Afghanistan.”

The three key goals of the strategy were identified by Obama as protecting the US homeland, allies and interests abroad; concern about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and stability; and Pak-India relations.

Pakistan even then was perceived as a safe haven for al-Qaeda leaders and other militants by the US. There appears to be no marked difference in the thinking of Biden’s administration as compared to that of Obama’s. The US appreciated the importance of keeping the Pak-US alliance intact due to operational needs, but on many others, the strategic interests of both the countries did not converge.

Being overwhelming concerned with the US weariness towards war, Biden ultimately withdrew forces from Afghanistan, but all against his hopes the Taliban took over Kabul to the exclusion of others unlike what was agreed under the Doha Agreement.

Having no compulsion of operations in Afghanistan now, the Biden administration has embarked upon a renewed strategy under QUAD and AUKUS, focusing on the Indo-Pacific region in order to contain China. In this new development, Pakistan being contiguous to the Indian Ocean also appears to be under the US radar. The loud thinking of the hawks like John Bolton apprehends the possible creeping of radicalised elements into the power structure of Pakistan, which might endanger peace. The US Deputy Foreign Secretary, also not mincing words, said that the US was looking at Pakistan only in terms of what was happening in Afghanistan and not in a broader context of the relationship. The situation with these new developments is quite grave and poses new security challenges to us, despite a government of Taliban in Afghanistan. Therefore, diplomacy will remain a tight-rope walk for us, requiring cautious treading.

On our part, it is imperative to design a cohesive strategy with a focus on peaceful co-existence, dispelling the impression of having sympathy with radicals of any kind. Our overtures in this regard must be towards peace in the region, with a zero tolerance to radicalism.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 3rd, 2021.