Why Trump Administration Wants Saudi Arabia to Be Interlocutor Between US and Pakistan

IRSHAD SALIM: The White House on Wednesday said there is an opportunity for Saudi Arabia to be a key interlocutor between the US and Pakistan—their bilateral relationship has reportedly hit rock-bottom after the US President announced in August his South Asia policy to end America’s 16-year old conflict in Afghanistan which has cost taxpayers more than $1 trillion plus. And Trump’s new year early morning tweet accusing Pakistan lies, deceit and deception did the rest.

Since then the two’s floundering alliance metaphorically speaking is in the ICU, as both seek ways and means to make the best out of the dampening situation. “Can’t live cant live without syndrome” pervades the atmosphere in search of a golden mean to resolve Afghan issue.

A senior Pakistani defense and security official familiar with Pakistan and Saudi relations said, “I’ve no knowledge of the plan, (but) I think it’s a good initiative.” And understandably so, as the three countries have had a 11-year history of close, comfortable working relationship as a bulwark against the Soviets  in Afghanistan in th 1980s. In that triangle, Saudi and Pakistan provided the base with key beneficiary becoming the U.S. — eventually the socialist Soviet empire collapsed, Germany reunited, and the hard work facilitated a unipolar power center emerging for decades from the ashes of bipolar geopolitical Sphinx.

The two Muslim countries logically ended up much closer, and the U.S. moved on to redraw a new world order– a work that’s still in progress. Pakistan and Afghanistan happen to be in the front-line in the region that many observers say would be for decades the cul-de-sac for a new but extended Eurasia covering the Caspian oil and gas basin.

Therefore, Trump known for his penchant for seeking ways and means and out-of-the-box solutions and at times pulling surprises traditionally assumed to be non-conventional is a no-brainer when it comes to seeking Saudi as interlocutor in US-Pakistan relations. Institutional breakdown in their relationship warrants such a move when there’s work still need to be done in the region which matters both to the U.S. and Pakistan.

Saudi Arabia is the common denominator in the trilateral relationship which has off and on come handy.

“As you well know the Saudis have a long deeper relationship with Pakistan. There’s opportunities within that for the partner to provide, be a key interlocutor, if you will, so that there’s no misunderstanding between the US in Pakistan to convey not just messages, but also to identify opportunities for both parties to help them,” a senior administration official said, according to Riyadh Daily.

The remarks gained significance as they were made on the eve of the White House visit of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman for whom the Trump Administration threw a red-carpet welcome.

Trump reportedly broke the traditional protocol for the Saudi Crown Prince by receiving him at the White House and holding a one-to-one meeting at the Oval Office with Salman.

During the meetings on Prince Salman’s two-week visit, the Trump Administration has plans to discuss the new South Asia policy and seek the Kingdom’s help in bringing Pakistan on board. This week an influential Islamabad-based think tank concluded that US relations with Pakistan have been transactional and not strategic in form and substance.

Pakistan cannot be a strategic ally of the US as the latter’s interests in South Asia contradict Pakistan’s national interests, defense and security experts said on Monday at a seminar organized by the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI).

A third-party offering of friendly diplomacy could realign the contours for a best fit for all, said one observer on condition of anonymity.

Pakistan in the meanwhile is standing up to all pressures, and if the statements coming out from official channels are any indication, Islamabad seems to have done its homework well this time.

Noting that Saudi Arabia recognizes the importance the Trump Administration’s place on South Asian Strategy, the U.S. official said that this is one of such initiatives where they offered to assist for example, funding for the Afghan national security forces.

There’s some discussions about, could they host a donor’s conference in Kuwait, have the donor’s conference for reconstruction, which would be economically quite beneficial, mutually beneficial in terms of support for the Afghan government or support in the direction US is trying to go in countering extremism in Saudi Arabia, the official said.

This is a unique opportunity, the official noted.

While countries are saying that this is an American priority, the instability in South Asia has larger implications for the region, the official said, meaning implications for West Asia and the Middle East.

The official added that countries can work with the US to address common security challenges in a way that can be much more efficient but also more effective, and hopefully bringing these conflicts to a resolution.

Since the US, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia had a very close working relationship during the 11-year Afghan Jihad against the Soviets in the 80s, the Trump team wants to dust up old file and draw strength from it.

The trilateral Afghan-centric working relationship was shelved once the US pulled out creating a power vacuum which was filled by the Taliban. Pakistan was left in the lurch. The civil strife continues to date– an observation accepted by all sides over the years.

That trilateral working relationship which was then may also work now. There’s still retained earnings from that relationship to draw strength from. But the million dollar geopolitical riddle has been superseded by a trillion dollar geoeconomic gambit in the region with Pakistan as one of the beneficiaries no matter how you cut the cake.

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