The Pak-US bilateral relationship appears to be undergoing a subtle shift in gears. Admittedly, Washington is still playing hardball when it comes to the Taliban request for direct talks. And yes, it continues to outsource to this country responsibility for securing the latter’s place at the multilateral negotiating table. Indeed, it pursues the line that Islamabad is harbouring Afghan militants on this side of the border.
Yet the devil is always in the detail. Especially given that both sides confront a common enemy in ISIS. The terror outfit emerged on the Afghan battlefield back in 2014; possibly buoyed by its ‘success’ in Iraq and Syria. Be that as it may, analysts soon began to understand that this chapter more or less operates independently of the core group. It is engaged in a turf war with the Afghan Taliban for control of territory and resources. Alarmingly for Pakistan, are reports that militants from within its borders have jumped, quite literally, on the ISIS bandwagon.
That the US top diplomat for the Af-Pak region, Alice Wells, did not publicly dwell on this in press releases after her meeting this week with the COAS; only referring to such elements as those Taliban residing outside of Afghanistan is to be welcomed. Not least because its suggests a maturing recognition of the precarious balancing act that Pakistan is navigating.
Such as the military offensives here to flush out remnant safe-havens from inside national borders. Indeed, this is what many pundits believe pushed militants from this side of the Durand Line into the ISIS embrace. After all, some local groups have in the past pledged spiritual allegiance to the latter and have, on occasion, joined forces at the practical level. The US, for its part, is also familiar with walking the tightrope given that safe-havens exist on the Afghan side that are used to launch cross-border attacks over here. This is to say nothing of the US-led military operations that have in the past nudged the same over into Pakistani territory.
The primary reason behind Washington pushing Pakistan so hard to get the Taliban to join the Kabul-led peace process is that it believes this will free up efforts to exclusively target ISIS. There is some merit to this; as paradoxical as this may seem given the legitimate focus on political settlements. For this is what the Taliban amnesty package was largely about. To strengthen Kabul’s position. In fact, according to reporters on the ground — a not un-small number of Taliban have sought government protection against ISIS ferocity. Which, of course, in real terms, may mean simply pointing guns in the opposite direction. But that remains a predominantly Afghan question.
It is time for Pak-US ties to focus more on commonalities than divergent viewpoints. For much more can be achieved by working together. Indeed, this is something to which recent efforts to strengthen the Pak-Af relationship bear testimony. It is hoped that when the next set-up is in place — both Islamabad and Washington will be amenable to pressing the reset button. *
Published in Daily Times, July 4th 2018.