High hopes for US visit

As Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua makes her way to Washington today there is every reason to believe that official talks will be more positive than they have been in quite a while. Or, at least since that presidential tweet.

For this will be the first meeting between the two sides since the Afghan president put on the table an unconditional peace package for the Taliban; with the one proviso being that the latter recognise the Kabul regime. Pakistan, of course, was the first to openly support the move. The US, for its part, waited until almost a week before publicly throwing its weight behind the deal; which it did on Monday. Significantly, the Taliban have yet to respond, thereby prompting President Ghani to repeat his offer.

The sticking point is likely over prolonged American military presence in Afghanistan. For thus far, no murmurings have come out of Washington regarding any possible exit timetable in the eventuality that the Taliban sign up for peace. What we have instead is a US admission of legitimate militant grievances; as well as those held by Islamabad. And it is now up to Pakistan to build on this, keeping the interests of both in mind as a means towards sustainable peace. This is particularly important given that Washington seemingly insists on framing Afghan resentment in terms of previous political set-ups in Kabul. It was hoped that the time for blaming former President Karzai for all of the country’s ills was through. Just as it was believed the US had learned the lesson of turning on former protégés as soon as they begin to disagree with American policy.

But be that as it may, this US overture should not be dismissed out of hand. It is, after all, a starting point and one that suggests Trump Town may well be willing to listen; at least, for a while. Another conciliatory message was exclusively for Pakistan. The State Department has once again noted the important role that this country can play in any anticipated peace process. Pakistanis expected to take sole responsibility for getting the Taliban to the negotiating table but it must not take the fall when the latter do not prove willing partners for an American-defined peace. This is where the Afghan government and US must also share the burden.

Recent events indicate that the US strategy may be changing. Instead of cash-strapping Pakistan to make it go after the Haqqani Network, diplomacy and negotiations are being revived. Washington has its own set of policy objectives but they will not be achieved through humiliation of the country and especially its men in uniform. The plain fact is that Pakistan and its people have made numerous sacrifices in fighting a war that was initiated by the superpower in the first place. The two countries can still collaborate and perhaps agree on a minimum common agenda. Of course, the days of most allied-ally seem to be over.

Nevertheless, the immediate future for Pak-US ties looks somewhat optimistic. Let us hope it remains that way.  *

Published in Daily Times, March 8th 2018.