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A few months ago, I participated in a discussion at RUSI with a senior Pakistani general. In most respects, the general is a thoroughly liberal person and shares the hopes of the US and the UK for Pakistan to become a more open and peaceful society that is bound by the rule of law. However, when I asked him about Hafiz Saeed, the leader of the UN-listed terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, being released from house arrest, he described Saeed as his good friend. From the US perspective, of course, Saeed leads a terrorist organisation responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks. And yet from the Pakistani general’s point of view, as he explained, he is a comrade-in-arms in the eternal battle against India.
This is the heart of the problem between the US and Pakistan: the people and groups that the US see as the biggest threats to regional stability are seen by many Pakistanis, especially in the military, as allies; and Pakistanis see the US as ignoring their concerns and increasingly favouring India, which heightens their feeling of insecurity and their perception that Pakistan needs to maintain influence in Afghanistan and in Kashmir.
Relations between the US and Pakistan, perennially tormented but always close since the founding of Pakistan in 1947, reached a nadir after US President Donald Trump’s first tweet of 2018: ‘The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!’
However, the recent ceasefires in Afghanistan and contacts between the US Vice President Michael Pence and Pakistan’s Caretaker Prime Minister Nasirul Mulk, and especially between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Chief of Army Staff Qamar Javed Bajwa, create an opportunity to improve relations. This is emphatically in the interests of both countries, the wider region and, indeed, world peace. Yet in order to exploit the opportunity, both sides will need to grasp the nettle of their disagreement.
The pattern of this bilateral dialogue is, by now, familiar. The US condemns Pakistan for supporting terrorist groups, especially the Haqqani Network and Lashkar-e-Taiba; Pakistan responds by stressing its unrivalled sacrifices in the War on Terror. Both are true, but neither is relevant to the other; rather than continuing to talk past one another, the US and Pakistan need to address the underlining question of why Pakistan feels a continuing need to support its proxies, and then make a plan for changing this perceived need.
Pakistan’s support for groups that engage in terrorism is based on its well-founded fears of being encircled by India. Pakistan will only feel it can stop supporting groups that project its influence west into Afghanistan and east into Kashmir and other parts of India if Pakistan’s most senior officers believe that India does not pose an existential threat to it. Ultimately, Pakistan’s friends will have to find a way to address the root of Pakistan’s feeling of insecurity – namely the ongoing state of enmity with its giant and influential neighbour, India, with which it has gone to war four times. This realisation was the basis of Richard Holbrooke’s idea, before he became President Obama’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2008, of a ‘grand bargain’ between Pakistan and India. The grand bargain would centre around a dialogue about the countries’ dispute in Kashmir and competition in Afghanistan and involve the other major regional powers of China, Russia and Iran. Such a bargain is as needed today as it was twelve years ago. Moreover, it may be more viable: President Trump has shown throughout his short tenure in the White House that he is comfortable with radical changes of diplomatic course and with venturing where most professional diplomats have feared to tread.
Back in 2008/2009, Holbrooke’s advocacy of a grand bargain was crushed before his campaign could begin. He was not allowed to include India in his brief as the US’s ‘AfPak’ coordinator, because of Indian opposition to being lumped in with Pakistan and Afghanistan. And since then, India has adamantly rejected any outside interference in the Kashmir issue, and US policy has been not to push India on anything related to either Pakistan or Afghanistan. The US’s unwonted respect for India’s rejection of foreign interference reflects the US government’s perceptions of India’s economic and geopolitical value. US–India bilateral trade in 2016 was $115 billion, compared with $5.5 billion in trade between the US and Pakistan; and the US hopes India will provide a counterweight to China’s domination of Asia.
However, US perceptions on both scores may be unrealistic. A S Dulat, former secretary of India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), the country’s peak intelligence agency, warns in Spy Chronicles: RAW, ISI and the Illusion of Peace, that the idea of casting India as a counterbalance to China is wishful thinking. Moreover, there is no reason to believe that a thoughtful and discreet effort to explore how to make Pakistan feel more secure would lead India to cut its trade with the US or other Western countries. Even if it did, the potential benefits would vastly outweigh the cost. The countries prosecuting the war in Afghanistan, especially the US, blame Pakistan-supported terrorist organisations for perpetuating the war, which has now continued for an astonishing seventeen years. The cost of that war to the US is estimated at over $1 trillion, not to mention the deaths of approximately 111,000 Afghans, about 31,000 of them civilians, and nearly 3,500 coalition soldiers, with about ten times that number wounded.
If a grand bargain covering the future of Kashmir and other territorial disputes is beyond reach, interested parties might help to pursue a more modest one: Pakistan could stop its support for proxies in exchange for pledges by India to not cultivate its own proxies in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s worry about India’s influence in Afghanistan raises the spectre of being surrounded, which makes Islamabad feel that maintaining its own influence in Afghanistan is an existential imperative.
In Spy Chronicles, Dulat calls primarily for confidence-building gestures, while his Pakistani co-author – and former chief of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) – Asad Durrani focuses on sustained backchannel dialogue supported by expert staff. Given the intensity of public feeling in both countries around their relationship and security issues, there would need to be a massive and creative campaign to cultivate public support for making peace. Ideally, efforts should be made along all these tracks simultaneously. Soldiers from 30 countries have lost their lives in Afghanistan since 2001; all of them have an interest and many have influence to contribute towards creating an atmosphere conducive to such a bargain.
Until now, efforts to mitigate conflicts in South Asia have suffered less from a dearth of options than from a failure to recognise that conflicts all ultimately stem from Pakistan’s feeling of insecurity. US critics of Pakistan would do well to remember the words of Cicero, the great Roman statesman and lawyer: ‘In times of war, the law falls silent’. For anyone who wants to see Pakistan evolve into a country where all its people can live in security and dignity, while respecting the rights of others to do the same, the implication of Cicero’s insight seems obvious: the simmering conflicts that have shaped Pakistan since independence – between India and Pakistan and their various proxies – must end. Only then, when Pakistanis feel secure, will its support for proxies end, and will both India and Pakistan consistently support peace and prosperity in their part of the world.
Whit Mason is an Associate Fellow at RUSI and a Senior Fellow at ARTIS International.
BANNER IMAGE: Mountains surrounding Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. Courtesy of Wikimedia.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.