The long-awaited resumption of high-level talks in Islamabad last week to break the deadlock in the relations between the United States and Pakistan ended in an air of strategic ambiguity.
Prima facie, the talks ended in failure. The curious twist to the tale is that the talks broke down because the US resigned from an assurance given to the Pakistani side that it would render an apology for the American strikes last November that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers on the Afghan border.
But why wouldn’t US president Barack Obama sanction an apology? It seems it doesn’t look good in a crucial election year for Obama to be seen apologizing at the rate at which he is doing – whenever the US soldiers burn Korans or urinate on Afghan corpses or simply go berserk killing civilians.
On the other hand, what is there in an apology? The stakes are very high for Obama to settle with Pakistan. The summit meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO] is meeting in Chicago shortly and Obama has to show something by way of light at the end of the tunnel in the Afghan war. The US’ European allies are getting increasingly restive and Washington needs to raise the money (estimated at 4 billion dollars annually) to fund the Afghan army in the post-2014 scenario.
Above all, the US and NATO urgently seek the reopening of the transit routes through Pakistan to support troops currently in Afghanistan and also to help withdraw tens of thousands of weapons and materiel out as a major drawdown approaches in 2014.
To be sure, the backdrop is not of a kind that Obama would quibble over an apology and deliberately slow down the negotiation with Pakistan. That is, unless he has a game plan.
According to the US state department spokesperson, “This is the beginning of the re-engagement conversation. We’re going to have to work through these issues, and it’s going to take some time.” The so-called “issues” are mainly four: i) Pakistan’s demand that US should render stop the drone attacks and render an apology for the November airstrike; ii) transit routes via Pakistan; iii) military aid payments; and iv) Taliban peace process.
What emerges is that the US is working according to a plan. When the US special envoy Marc Grossman visited Pakistan last week, Washington had already initialed the US-Afghan ‘strategic partnership agreement’ and prior to that, two memorandums of understanding regarding transfer of prisoners to Afghan custody and the ending of ‘night raids’ by the US forces.
With the formal signing of the strategic partnership agreement at Chicago, the summit will endorse the strategy for the transition, following which the US will move on to the next stage of negotiations with Kabul over a ‘status of forces agreement’ concerning the long-term US military presence in Afghanistan.
It is increasingly apparent that the US will maintain a sizeable military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014, including combat troops and contingents of the US special operations forces. Now, such a military presence requires back up by American medical evacuation personnel and, of course, helicopters as also some US war planes, especially aerial gun ships and air-to-ground assault planes. These combat troops cannot operate in a vacuum and, therefore, a fleet of intelligence-gathering and surveillance aircraft and their crews will also have to remain. In sum, a substantial US military presence will continue. The spin is that the US is determined not to ‘abandon’ Afghanistan, as it did in 1989.
However, the sequencing of the negotiations with Kabul and Islamabad (and the Taliban) becomes important. The US would want the ‘status of forces agreement’ to be negotiated exclusively with Karzai, sequestering it from the peace process with the Taliban or the normalization of the US-Pakistan ties.
So, what we may expect is that on a parallel track the US will make haste slowly on the peace talks with the Taliban even as the ‘status of forces agreement’ is worked out. Washington has learnt a bitter lesson from the Iraq experience, where the American occupation was terminated by end-2011 despite the desperate US attempts to scuttle that. The US is not taking any chances in Afghanistan.
The centre-piece of the US strategy is the establishment of US military bases in Afghanistan and everything else is built around it – or integrated into it at various stages between now and end-2014. What we may expect, therefore, is that despite the recent massive attacks by the Taliban in Kabul, peace negotiations will continue. The general impression is that the Taliban devised a plan through these attacks to win more attention, which could be leveraged in its talks with the US. But the Taliban attacks may have instead helped prepare the ground in the Afghan opinion for the continued military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014.
Indeed, there has been no commotion within Pakistan over the initialing of the ‘strategic partnership agreement’ (or among the regional powers), which is leading to the establishment of US military bases. Karzai made things double sure in a timely move that panders to the Tajik sensitivities by also announcing that the late Burhanuddin Rabbani’s son would be the new head of the Afghan High Peace Council.
The missing link is where Pakistan stands in the US’ scheme of things. The short and clear-cut answer is that Pakistan remains the kingpin in the entire US strategy. Which is also why Washington is still withholding the promised military aid to the Pakistani military estimated to be anywhere between 1.18 and 3 billion dollars.
Without doubt, Grossman netted two important gains in Islamabad. First, a ‘core group’ has been set up to help arrange a safe passage for the Taliban who would travel for peace talks held in Afghanistan, Pakistan or third countries. More important, Pakistan has accepted Obama’s invitation to attend the NATO summit in Chicago. Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani will be attending.
Meanwhile, Washington has also resuscitated the New Silk Road project, which is an important dimension to the post-2014 scenario and whose realization is almost entirely predicated on Pakistan’s cooperation. Evidently, Washington is taking Pakistan’s cooperation as a done thing. Geoffrey Pyatt, US principal assistant secretary of state in the bureau of South and Central Asia, who was speaking in Almaty during a regional tour of Central Asia on April 20 said, “As proof of that [New Silk Road] concept, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan have just formalized their own Cross-Border Transport Agreement.”
Pyatt listed a number of activities that are giving traction to the New Silk Road project: Afghan-Pakistan trade and transit agreement, easing of restrictions on India-Pakistan trade and commercial ties; Uzbek and Turkmen supply of electricity to Afghanistan; new rail connections being built between Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan; new rail line from the Uzbek border to Mazar-i-Sharif; progress in the negotiations over a Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project; India’s iron ore project in Hajigak in Afghanistan; bids by American companies in the upcoming six mining tenders in Afghanistan (3 in copper, two in gold and one in lithium); creation of the Border Management Staff College in Dushanbe and the Customs Training Facility in Bishkek, and so on…
Pyatt linked the New Silk Road to the Afghan settlement. “Along the New Silk Road, all of Afghanistan’s neighbors… stand to benefit from an end to the insurgency and a broad-based political solution.” Suffice to say, Obama’s meeting with Gilani in Chicago, which will be their second meeting in 3 months, underscores the high importance the US attaches to getting Pakistan on board the New Silk Road project. No matter the spin given to Grossman’s talks in Islamabad last week, Washington is steadily working toward the smoothening of the relationship with Pakistan so that with Islamabad’s cooperation, peace talks with the Taliban can resume while on a parallel track the US-Afghan status of forces agreement is concluded. All these processes are expected to converge by end-2014 and provide the underpinning for the New Silk Road project.
The building blocks of the New Silk Road project for embedding Afghanistan in the Central Asian region are already visible at the recently concluded Regional Economic Cooperation in Afghanistan [RECCA-V] in Dushanbe, which agreed on a broad-based series of regulatory reforms, cross-border economic initiatives, improved customs measures, and inter-regional transit agreements designed to promote regional economic integration in Central Asia under US leadership.
Again, the Organization of Security Cooperation Ministerial Conference of the Central Asia Border Security Initiative held at Vienna on April 17 (which was attended by Pyatt) has backed the efforts at RECCA. The US made it clear at the Vienna conference that the OSCE will have a key role in Afghanistan and Central Asia to accelerate the New Silk Road project aiming at the strengthening of economic integration between South and Central Asia with Afghanistan as its center.