Tillerson in Islamabad: Signs of a Thaw in Relations?

Pakistan and the United States

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was recently on a tour of South Asia to expand upon Donald Trump’s vision for the region, a policy the U.S. president announced in August. Though Tillerson had planned to visit Islamabad and New Delhi, he also made an unannounced stopover in Afghanistan, where he held a closed-door discussion with President Ashraf Ghani at the Bagram Airfield in Kabul. Before leaving Afghanistan for Pakistan, Tillerson reiterated the two leaders’ commitment to the fight against the Taliban and the denial of safe haven to terrorists. He also stated that the United States had made “very specific requests of Pakistan in order for them to take action to undermine the support the Taliban receives and the other terrorist organizations receive in Pakistan.” In Islamabad, Secretary Tillerson continued to press Pakistan to accelerate its efforts to eradicate terrorists and their sanctuaries. If Pakistan did not act against the Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan, then the United States would do so unilaterally, Tillerson asserted. After Islamabad, the secretary’s next stop was New Delhi, which only reinforced the speculation surrounding a growing geostrategic alignment between the United States and India.

These developments, along with the Trump’s new Afghan policy and BRICS’ decision to release a declaration condemning Pakistan-based terror groups, has generated nervousness among Pakistan’s ruling elite and seems to have forced the state to revisit its strategy of using militant groups as proxies to further its geopolitical goals. There are also signs that despite divergence in the two countries’ policy preference on Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States may be quietly working to repair their relationship.

Quid Pro Quo Policy with Modest Thaw

When Secretary Tillerson landed in Islamabad on October 24, he was not accorded the pomp and circumstance typically doled out to high-level officials visiting from the United States. After he was received by a mid-level Pakistani Foreign Office official, it was clear that the secretary’s visit to the country would reflect the current state of relations between Pakistan and the United States: tense. Ever since Trump’s decision to call Pakistan out as a supporter of “agents of chaos” in Afghanistan, the relationship, which has over the decades experienced many ups and downs, has nosedived. After a mere four-hour meeting with Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership, the U.S. Secretary reassured Pakistan that Washington considers Islamabad an important actor in establishing and maintaining regional peace and stability. However, the major crux of this dialogue was cooperation on counterterrorism. In return, Pakistan’s political and military leadership repeated its old cliché that it is committed to the war on terror though they have suffered along the way.

However, recent developments in the region give the impression that neither the United States nor Pakistan wants to completely derail the relationship. In Washington, there seems to be a sense that the strategy of “getting tough” on Pakistan regarding Afghanistan has its limitations. The United States can’t completely alienate Pakistan; it still needs to supply its troops in Afghanistan through Pakistani territory, to share intelligence between the U.S. intelligence community and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, and leverage Pakistan’s relationship with the Haqqani network and the Taliban. Pakistan, in turn, stands to gain from a positive relationship with the United States. Aside from military hardware and economic aid, the United States plays an important role in the periodic bailouts Pakistan receives from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the loans it borrows from the World Bank. Thus, with troop levels only rising in Afghanistan, a dependency has emerged that will not allow the United States and Pakistan to completely shun each other.

At the same time, many Pakistani analysts believe that Pakistan should grant some concessions to the United States with the Taliban and the Haqqani network. Along those lines, the Pakistani government appears to be signaling its willingness to cooperate with Washington.  For instance, there was a growing number of drone attacks in the Af-Pak region leading up to the Tillerson visit. The first drone strike hit a Haqqani target in Pakistan’s Khurram Agency, taking out one of their top military commanders, Sangeen Wali Shah. After that, there was the dramatic rescue operation of an American-Canadian family who had been in the captivity of terrorists since 2012, a move clearly coordinated by both the Pakistani and U.S. intelligence agencies. America reciprocated by killing top commanders of Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA), an offshoot of the Pakistani Taliban. Both Umar Khalid Khorasani and his associate Umar Mansoor, who were the masterminds of the Army Public School carnage, were killed in Afghanistan. Additionally, a meeting of the Quadrilateral Cooperation Group (QCG) comprising of the United States, China, Pakistan, and Afghanistan was recently held in Oman after a gap of 16 months.  And the Pakistan government’s extension of the detention of Jamaat-ud Dawa chief Hafiz Saeed could also be seen in this larger regional perspective.

US Afghanistan

More importantly, reputable Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir made an interesting revelation in a recent episode of his talk show that aired on October 24. According to Mir, the Pakistani military leadership sent a strong message to the Taliban through renowned religious scholars to leave Pakistani territory. A religious scholar, who requested to remain anonymous, told Mir that the Taliban were categorically told to stop using Pakistani territory for attacks in Afghanistan. If true, this gives the impression that Pakistan wants to tactically persuade the Taliban to come to the negotiation table. This may address the United States’ growing uneasiness with Islamabad’s unabated support of the Taliban and the Haqqani Network.

The Taliban appear to be launching a counteroffensive in Afghanistan as a show of strength to both Pakistan and the United States that it will not abandon its mission in the face of Trump’s strong-arm tactics.  In the last two weeks alone, the Taliban have killed over 100 security forces and destroyed three Afghan security bases in the south and southeastern provinces of the country. Given the United States’ renewed commitment to the counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan, the Taliban will no longer be able to show their strength by holding massive amounts of territory, since that requires huge physical and financial assets. They will, however, inflict causalities by increasing the number of attacks they launch on Afghan forces.

Conclusion

Despite the negative tone of Tillerson’s visit to Islamabad, given the recent developments in the two states’ alliance, actions have become more important than words. Tillerson signaled that the United States will work with Pakistan, but with some conditions attached. Though the Secretary may have been very blunt on terrorist sanctuaries, his visit has renewed an opportunity for Pakistan to identify areas of cooperation with the United States and reassess the perennial issues in the relationship. As for U.S. strategy vis-à-vis South Asia, only time will tell whether the policy shift that is exacerbating regional faultlines will bear fruit.

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Image 1: U.S. Department of State via Flickr

Image 2: U.S. Department of State via Flickr

Posted in , Afghanistan, Pakistan, Security, Terrorism, United States, US

Yaqoob ul Hassan

Yaqoob ul Hassan

Dr. Yaqoob ul Hassan is a Researcher at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA). He has done his PhD on Pakistan and was also a post doc fellow at Istanbul University, Turkey. His area of interests are Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Political Islam.

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