IRSHAD SALIM (Jun 9, 2018) — Three phone calls Thursday from U.S. to Islamabad and Rawalpindi have jump-started a significant development toward thawing of icy relations between the two countries.
The most significant call — six months after President Trump’s early morning New Year caustic tweet against Pakistan — was from Washington by Vice President Micheal Pence to caretaker prime minister Justice retired Nasir ul Mulk.
While felicitating Mr. Mulk on assuming the premier’s office, Pence’s message and emphasis was the needed cooperation from Pakistan for lasting peace in Afghanistan, and hoping that the premier would successfully undertake the task of holding elections in the country.
Both matters are of utmost importance to U.S. interests in the region’s stability.
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Relations between the two countries had become tense since President Trump last August announced the new strategy for South Asia and Afghanistan, which was very critical of Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan and the region in general. Trump’s tweet created more turbulence when he accused Pakistan of “lies and deceit” after which Washington also suspended security assistance for its one-time ally. More lately the two sides imposed reciprocal restrictions on each other’s diplomats.
The second and third important calls were from Secretary State Mike Pompeo and from Microsoft Corporation co-founder Bill Gates to Pakistan army chief Gen. Bajwa in Rawalpindi.
These communications are seen as the first major move towards improving strained relations. What triggered the shift?
Some observers believe that days before these calls, military spokesman Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor in a media conference signaled that Pakistan was ready to use all sorts of leverages that remained with it to persuade the Taliban to join the Afghan negotiation process.
Gen Ghafoor had importantly said that Pakistan wanted the US forces to succeed and go back from Afghanistan “with a notion of victory and success”. The message, analysts believe, was meant to dispel US fears that Pakistan wanted to undermine American efforts in Afghanistan.
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The message seems to have been picked up in the US and was reciprocated with the two important calls from senior Trump administration leaders.
Gates calling up the Army Chief and acknowledging Pakistan military’s supportive efforts to eradicate polio from the country was according to one analyst, not just coincidental, given the timing and subsequent moves that followed — Gates in April rejected Trump’s offer to be his science adviser as ‘not a good use of my time’.
The military’s Inter-Services Public Relations said in a statement on Thursday that “Bill Gates called COAS…Acknowledged supporting efforts by Pakistan Army for successfully eradicating Polio from Pakistan.”
Observers say the Polio eradication effort could not have been possible unless it was preceded by a successful mopping-up ops by the military of militants, extremists and terrorists holed up in the tribal regions particularly. Gates so-called “public diplomacy” call may have cracked the silence, said one Islamabad-based analyst on condition of anonymity.
And while it takes two to tango, the official Voice of America radio was quick to comment on the calls saying, “The United States appears to be easing public pressure on Pakistan in a bid to encourage the country to help promote peace and reconciliation with the Taliban to bring an end to the war in Afghanistan.”
The icebreaker reportedly came after the US and Pakistan worked together in arranging a temporary ceasefire in Afghanistan, hoping that it would jump-start the Afghan reconciliation process, official and diplomatic sources told Dawn.
At the same time, GHQ’s tacit offer via ISPR to enable and facilitate an honorable victory exit (not physical) for the US from Afghanistan imbroglio energized matters seemingly with clockwork precision. On board, observers say, were China and Russia for their own reasons — that is, a terror free region straddling their zones of influence.
According to one source, Saudi Arabia and the UAE also have role in the ongoing efforts.
At a Thursday afternoon seminar, a senior US official confirmed that Washington was pursuing “multiple lines of effort” for bringing peace to Afghanistan and an important component of that effort was to ensure that Pakistan played “a constructive role” in it.
“We have asked for Pakistan’s assistance in facilitating a peace process,” said Lisa Curtis, a senior adviser to the US president.
“And we have sought to understand Pakistan’s own core security concerns and ensure that its interests are taken into account in any peace process.”
Pakistan’s core interests observers say include an India-free Afghanistan, U.S. and India recognition that China Pakistan Economic Corridor is in the best interest of the region, and recognition of its counterterrorism efforts by the US and Nato allies in Afghanistan.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday that US and Nato troops in Afghanistan will also observe this truce and there will be no attack on the militants if they do not breach the ceasefire arrangement, and counted out ISIS and Al-Qaeda.
Pakistan’s role in the ceasefire was also discussed at a news briefing by a senior administration official in Washington. “We’re certainly hopeful that both the Taliban and those … or countries that have some degree of influence with the Taliban will equally support this limited duration ceasefire,” he said.
Meanwhile, as Pakistan firmly entrenches itself in China camp, it seeks to do damage control while recalibrating its relationship with the US, other nations and the stakeholders, said one defense analyst. The Taliban is a major stakeholder.
“We have to be clear that Pakistan’s interests are not served by a Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan,” said Ms. Curtis in her keynote address at a Washington think-tank, the US Institute of Peace. “Pakistan has a fundamental responsibility to address the use of its territory by these malign actors.”
Explaining the new US approach towards Pakistan, Ms Curtis said: “One can acknowledge Pakistan’s complex security calculus without absolving it of its responsibility to do something of these malign actors.”
Meanwhile, Afghanistan on China and Pakistan prodding, is willing to join CPEC and reap its benefits. Therefore, moving forward the whole gamut could eventually turn out to be a slam-dunk for all if all the I’s are dotted and the T’s are slashed on mutual recognition of one another’s core interests with respect.
(The writer is a business consultant and analyst, and Group Editor of PKonweb.com and DesPardes.com – His opinion articles, analysis and reports also appear in Jeddah-based Al-Bilad English Daily and UAE-based Caravan Daily)