ISLAMABAD - When the term Af-Pak was introduced into U.S. foreign policy lingo around 2008, presumably by Richard Holbrooke, who would later become the first U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, many Pakistanis resented the phrase.
It was originally coined to reflect the belief that U.S. policy required a unified approach to military and security issues in the region. Winning the war in Afghanistan required a coordinated approach with Pakistan. But in Islamabad, officials felt the United States was looking at its relationship with Pakistan through the lens of Afghanistan.
Ten years later, the war in Afghanistan continues and Washington's relationship with Islamabad has worsened. The U.S. has suspended military aid unless Pakistan does more to crack down on militant groups. Pakistan says Washington is making it a scapegoat for the U.S. failure to secure Afghanistan.
Moeed Yusuf, the associate vice president of the U.S. Institute of Peace's Asia Center says, both sides are signaling to each other that the cost of crossing their red lines, which they have not clearly defined for the other side, will be high. While neither wants the relationship to actually rupture,"the danger of either side miscalculating the red lines of the other are higher than I’ve ever seen before in the last 15 years," he said.
The United States has long accused Pakistan of providing safe havens to the Afghan Taliban, as well as its deadly arm the Haqqani Network.
Pakistan has countered that it has paid a heavy price for military offensives that its commanders say have now cleared all safe havens from Pakistani territory. Pakistani officials say the Taliban control enough territory in Afghanistan that they do not need Pakistan.
That is an argument the United States has never accepted. But what U.S. officials would often acknowledge in background meetings was that they understood Pakistan’s concerns it did not want to bring Afghanistan’s war onto its soil by turning the Afghan government’s enemy into its own.
Pakistan also insists the United States is over estimating the Taliban presence in Pakistan.
“We say there are no longer any organized safe havens." said Pakistan’s Minister of Defense Khurram Dastgir Khan. He added there may be remnants of militants hiding among the population, but the government is going after them through follow-up operations.
2018 could be rocky
According to Yusuf, as the war has dragged on and the Taliban have continued their deadly attacks against NATO and Afghan forces, "the U.S. has lost any empathy or sympathy for the Pakistani concern that taking on the Taliban on this side will create problems for Pakistan," he said.
Thomas Lynch, a Distinguished Research Fellow for South Asia and the Near East at the National Defense University in Washington said, "There is a complete exhaustion factor with Pakistan in Washington. This is why Pakistan will see an increasing difficulty with U.S. policy responses in coming weeks and months."
Pakistan has not been able to use its influence with the Taliban to bring them to the negotiating table, and the Trump administration’s focus is now on taking them off the battlefield. Lynch says that does not mean talks are off the table, it means the United States would talk after it has considerably weakened the Taliban militarily.
Most analysts agree Pakistan’s role is crucial in negotiations and in battle.
Regional rivalries block change
But Richard Olsen, a former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan who also served as the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan in the Obama administration, is skeptical the United States has the leverage to make Pakistan change its behavior, something Washington has not been able to do in almost two decades, partly because of regional anxieties.
Islamabad fears its rival, India, which has good relations with Kabul, will use the opportunity to encircle Pakistan from the west, according to Yusuf and Stephen Hadley, former U.S. Assistant for National Security Affairs. Pakistan’s military “have always feared a scenario in which Afghanistan offers India a second base from which to squeeze Pakistan,” the two wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times.
Pakistan also fears India is trying to disrupt a new economic corridor China is helping to develop in Pakistan. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor is a collection of energy and infrastructure projects the government says will change the country’s flailing economy into a powerhouse.
Pakistan's Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee Chairman General Zubair Mahmood Hayat told a seminar in Islamabad the Indian intelligence agency Research & Analysis Wing, commonly known as RAW, had "established a new cell with a special allocation of over $500 million in 2015 to sabotage CPEC projects [in Pakistan]."
With the new U.S. South Asia policy encouraging India to play a larger regional role, American intentions in the region also became suspect for Pakistan when Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee that CPEC passed through a “disputed territory,” a reference to the Kashmir region India and Pakistan each claim.
Trust an issue
Lynch says he thinks sanctions against important individuals, rather than the Pakistani state, might prove more forceful than anything else.
“I think if certain retired political and military figures were to suddenly have travel bans and frozen finances, there’d be a different perspective in Pakistan. I think we’d start from retired and we’d move on from there,” he said.
Pakistan has the option of closing down NATO supply routes through its territory. But senior Pakistani officials have indicated they would not do so without careful deliberations.
“Pakistan’s been told if they even attempt to do that for a short period of time, that extensive U.S. sanctions against significant Pakistani figures would follow quickly,” Lynch added.
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s biggest regional ally, China, also appears to be making an effort to smooth relations.
“I think China would like to see normal relationship between Pakistan and the United States. Pakistan and the United States have been allies for years,” said Lijian Zhao, the Chinese Deputy Chief of Mission in Islamabad.
“We have diplomatic consultations with both ... The countries should cooperate with each other, instead of working against each other. We should work against the terrorists together,” he added. Although, he said diplomacy works incrementally and no one should expect a breakthrough overnight.