U.S.-Pakistan Relations Must Rebalance for Today's World

A recent high-level visit to Washington shows how Islamabad hopes for a renewed U.S. approach.

General Raheel Sharif, Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff, was in Washington last week. He arrived on the heels of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit a month earlier. The trips were independent yet related, with two different interlocutors discussing the same subjects: Afghanistan, Pakistan’s ongoing operations against militants in North Waziristan and its broader anti-terror campaign, the country’s nuclear program and India-Pakistan tensions.

The army wanted to convey its own perspective on these issues directly and not solely through the civilian leadership. It has been leading the response to Pakistan’s security issues and felt its voice needed to be heard, believing it could better explain the security and foreign policy dynamics at the heart of the challenges facing Pakistan. Confirming the broad policy agenda of the visit, Gen. Sharif met with a number of administration officials and political leaders, including the heads of the CIA and the State and Defense Departments, as well as members of Congress.

The highlight of the visit was a meeting with Vice President Joe Biden. The White House press release said both leaders “reaffirmed their strong commitment to peace in Afghanistan and the important role that the United States and Pakistan can play to support a reinvigorated reconciliation process in coordination with Afghanistan.” According to Pakistani official sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity, Gen. Sharif sought to clear up any misunderstanding or misperception in Washington about Pakistan’s security and counterterrorism policies and approach to the talks with the Taliban. After having heard from the “horse’s mouth,” the officials felt there should be a greater clarity about where Pakistan stands. And this is what Pakistan also wanted from Washington’s side: to know where it stands.

The talks focused largely on Afghanistan. Pakistan’s view was that before bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table, divergent U.S. and Pakistani strategies needed to be addressed first, and the dialogue has to be Afghan-owned. According to Pakistani officials, the U.S.’ force-first approach—which prioritized operations against the Taliban, as well as the Haqqani network, in order to coerce them into negotiations—might only fracture the group. This would only allow an emergent wing of the Islamic State to pick up the pieces and leave no one to talk to. Reconcilable parties must first be co-opted and talks started; then, those who want to fight must be dealt with by force. And to ensure the success of military action, there ought to be better coordination among the three intelligence agencies—the CIA, ISI and NDS—to close any escape routes.

A recent Asia Foundation survey shows 62 percent of Afghans believe reconciliation with the Taliban will bring stability. But the unity government in Kabul has no unified position on this. Even if the reconciliation process starts, it will only be the first step. Afghanistan’s stability, and that of the region, will require much more. It will depend on serious efforts by Afghans to strengthen their internal unity, governing institutions and state structures. These efforts will have to be backed up by a strict commitment to noninterference by regional actors, most importantly from Pakistan; that cannot come in earnest without the normalization of India-Pakistan relations and improved understanding between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Gen. Sharif reportedly told CIA Director John Brennan that tensions with India on its eastern borders would need to be reduced in order to reinitiate peace talks between the unity government in Kabul and the Taliban. Presently, India’s military posture will not allow Pakistan to divert its attention or resources to Taliban safe havens, while keeping guard against India at the Line of Control (LOC). Thus far, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken a hard line with Pakistan across the board—on Kashmir, borders, regional affairs and terrorism. And according to a recent New York Times editorial, “he has done nothing to engage Islamabad on security issues, and he also bears responsibility for current tensions.”

There is a natural concern here in Washington about the growing nuclear program in Pakistan. Reportedly, Pakistan defended the program as a response to the Indian defense posture, assuring the U.S. that they do not plan to escalate unless India does.

The region is complex, and peace is indivisible. It has been said that India and Pakistan are no longer hyphenated in the eyes of U.S. policymakers. But it is increasingly clear that the South Asian neighbors, along with Afghanistan, are enclosed within the same brackets in some ways, irrespective of their size and national strength. How so? The U.S.’ relationship with one state demonstrably affects intra-regional relations. The U.S.-India nuclear deal and the Asia-Pacific rebalance, for example, may have contributed to closer China-Pakistan ties and the hardening of all sides’ positions.

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