Moving Out of Af-Pak

Tomorrow Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, will meet President Barack Obama in Washington, to signal Islamabad’s renewed interest in a broad-based relationship with the US. This will be the first opportunity for both leaders to size up each other’s resolve, identify new areas of cooperation, re-assess perennial issues, and calibrate upcoming challenges. Given that the bandwidth for convergence is overshadowed by strategic gaps, what would Sharif be looking to prioritize in his 60 minutes at the Oval?

Read South Asia Center Director Shuja Nawaz‘s advice for President Obama on doing business with Pakistan

Caution, clearly, is the best guide to setting an expectation bar from this meeting. New contingencies blur the path to turning a crisp new page on both sides. The American system has just managed to avert a default rooted in internal political gridlock. Pakistan is in multiple crises.

Even without this context, the bilateral relationship is best left unburdened with the baggage of too many outcome benchmarks. There really can’t be any profound changes at this stage.

Yet predicting a spiral of doom for Pak-US ties is for the risk averse. Strategic drift is the more likely gradient, which is fine. The doom school ignores the opportunity embedded in multiple transitions.

As the world turns, and the Indian prime minister meets the Chinese president at the same time, the window to work this moment to relocate Pakistan in an incrementally better, less flammable strategic equation with the US is open again.

Sober minds in Washington do see democratic consolidation as the compass to a more stable future for Pak-US ties. And privately, Pakistan’s mainstream political parties are all on one page, give or take a paragraph for public ratings, on enduring ties with the US.

Three items matter most. Trade enhancement and the drone conversation should top the list. The latter, predictably, is unlikely to yield breakthroughs in the absence of a serious counterterrorism plan. But if there is one thing that Sharif should put on the table for joint review apart from the above, it is the lens through which Pakistan is seen by Washington.

Islamabad should not continue to be seen as a function of Afghan stability. Because of post 9/11 alignments, militant proxies and the massing of terrorist sanctuaries on both sides of a border that defies Westphalian governance, Pakistan’s geo-political identity in Washington is still fixed in the ‘Af-Pak’ strategic idiom.

The change needs to flow from both Islamabad and Washington. The unintended consequences for Pakistan in staying bridged to Afghan outcomes are not sustainable.

So, while managing its Afghanistan endgame is a core priority for Washington, burdening Pakistan with the play-out as default is neither politic nor smart.

Starting with the Zardari-led government, Islamabad has been clearly signalling its move away from the 30-year strategic depth straitjacket of containing Indian regional ambitions. This should be encouraged by Washington.

Putting the belated responsibility for stabilizing Afghanistan on Pakistan through brokering an abortive peace with the insurgent Afghan Taliban as the US draws down troops in Afghanistan will not help the ‘letting-Afghanistan-be’ process.

This does not mean Islamabad should not be supporting Kabul’s stated reconciliation demands on the High Peace Council’s road map to peace. This it is already doing, to the extent it can.

Regional turmoil is the broad, chaotic map which Pakistan must navigate for a few years at the very least. The US is the biggest player in that equation.

Negotiations in Afghanistan are stalemated in a layer of unpredictable fog, with the American bilateral security agreement bogged down in Karzai’s leeriness about the post-2014 US need for residual force protection and jurisdiction.

The timeline of an Afghan election in April, and Mullah Omar’s recalibration of the Afghan Taliban’s need to sue for peace imperil Kabul’s leadership capacities in a fragile security environment.

The burden of securing American development and reconstruction gains in Afghanistan is a hard one, which Pakistan cannot really share without Kabul taking a clear lead, especially while there is little ballast to Washington’s road map to secure, finance and stabilize Afghanistan’s future.

Pakistan’s experience with a US partnership to change the Afghan political game is not ahistorical. Islamabad sees the old need for keeping Kabul friendly as important, given the porous, long border NATO has been unable to interdict for terrorism or narcotics. But it needs options and momentum to move away from the old ball and chain of brokering power in Kabul.

To that end, both the Zardari-led democratic government, and now the Sharif one, seem committed to playing no political favorites in Afghanistan. They need Kabul to govern and stabilize Kabul, not Islamabad.

No conventional wisdoms hold in this fluid backdrop. While a smaller foreign footprint may help the insurgency simmer down, the absence of a decisive NATO  victory in Afghanistan, after 12 years of blood and treasure, poses a calendar of imminent anxieties for Pakistan.

Memory is a strong guide. Even when Pakistan ‘won’ the war with America 30 years ago, despite the Geneva Accords, no one could secure the peace. Pakistan became collateral damage.

But since blame narratives do not amount to strategy, it’s time Islamabad took responsibility for Islamabad, and articulated the dangers of multiple militants uniting and continuing to challenge Kabul and then Islamabad. Pakistan’s new government is late on a steep learning curve for strategic clarity on tackling home-spawned terrorism. In a theatre of limited, time-sensitive abilities, Islamabad must sharpen urgently its policy focus on prioritizing the degrading of militant sanctuaries at home.

That will help joint Pak-US counterterrorism objectives in Afghanistan and also enable the vexed drone conversation to go better than it usually does.

Outside official circles, when predicting how the Pak-US relationship pulls past 2014, the smart money is on a stable, quieter Pak-US relationship, minus new crises.

To get there, the one idea to push should be this: the path to peace in Kabul does not lie solely through Pakistan any more. No one should worry that it lies through New Delhi either. It can’t.

Sherry Rehman is Pakistan’s former ambassador to Washington, and chair of Jinnah Institute. She is on Twitter @SherryRehman