It would perhaps be right to believe that even while there are a number of areas in which we will need discussions with China, the most important foreign policy issue in the coming days will be relations with the United States (US) and the discussions that we will have with Secretary Pompeo when he is in Pakistan on September 5. He will, we might note, be going on to India along with Defense Secretary Gen Mattis with the declared objective of consolidating the already strong defence ties and give a fillip to their strategic ties, designed without explicit acknowledgement to contain China. The US views its relations largely but not exclusively through the prism of Afghanistan. It is a reality that the American presence in Afghanistan can only be maintained by using Pakistan’s overland route and airspace. Knowledgeable analysts dismiss any possibility of the resurrection of the Northern route. A relationship with Pakistan is therefore essential to keep these supply routes open. The Americans have cut the CSF funds they used to provide to cover the Pakistani costs on the maintenance of these supply routes and to underwrite partially Pakistan’s own battle against terrorism. This year, only $150 million have been earmarked for Pakistan and will be given for securing the border with Afghanistan. Whether the assistance earlier suspended after Trump’s New Year Tweet still remains available is not clear and is something, I am sure, our officials are trying to ascertain. Currently the declared American policy is that its military presence is conditions based and will be maintained. Much has been written in the American and Western press about the futility of America’s longest war but I believe that when America’s annual expenditure is only $45 billion — a miniscule part of its $717 billion defence budget — to support its 16,000 military personnel and about 50,000 civil contractors, when there are virtually no body bags (17 American soldiers died in 2017)returning to the US and when most Americans pay little attention to what some commentators in America have referred to as the “Forgotten War”, President Trump will probably not overrule the military’s request to stay in Afghanistan at least until the Al-Qaeda-Daesh threat in the AFPak region has been eliminated. There has been talk of Trump seriously considering the proposal of Erik Prince of Black Water fame —whose access to Trump is facilitated by his sister being the Education Secretary — to privatise the war in Afghanistan but it is unlikely that the US military will countenance this. The USA’s ostensible concern in this regard, as evident from the imbroglio over what was said or not said in Pompeo’s conversation with our PM, is that there are terrorist groups on Pakistani soil that are blocking prospects for reconciliation in Afghanistan. There is also concern about other groups—the Americans say that there are 70 identified terrorist groups in the AfPak region, of which 20 are Pakistan based — but the main focus is on those that they believe are operational in Afghanistan. In reality, what the Americans want is for Pakistan to pressure the Taliban on its soil to accept the Ashraf Ghani proposal made at the second Kabul Process Conference in Kabul in April to set up offices in Afghanistan and enter into negotiations with the Ashraf Ghani-Abdullah Abdullah government. General John Nicholson, outgoing commander of the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission said recently that, “Pakistan is key to the solution in Afghanistan,”, “The Taliban enjoy freedom of action there [in Pakistan]; they occasionally come from there, and casualties are taken back there. These are things we are concerned about.” It can be noted that he speaks of “occasionally” supporting the contention of Pakistani observers that the Taliban operations are carried out largely by the Taliban from within Afghanistan. According to John Sopko, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the Taliban controlled area in August last year was 13 percent, with another 30 percent being contested. The Sopko report of July this year says that “The number of districts and the amount of territory contested between the government and the insurgency rose slightly this quarter” suggesting that the new no-holds barred policy of air attacks and intelligence based operations had not caused the Taliban to lose any territory while attacks and temporary capture in Ghazni, Faryab and other cities suggest that far from being placed on the defensive the Taliban were doing much more than merely holding their own. It is unfortunate, though not unexpected that Afghan officials have said that the Ghazni operation was planned by the Pakistanis and that Pakistanis participated in the Taliban attack. Such groundless accusations apart, what does a cold blooded analysis of the situation suggest? The ANDSF despite the Resolute Support Mission’s support will not be able to retake territory controlled or influenced by the Taliban nor will the Taliban be able, unless the American will falters – and I don’t believe it will — be able to take Government controlled territory. If, contrary to my expectation, America does falter the Taliban will assume full control of Afghanistan’s southern and Eastern districts abutting on Pakistan while the resurrected Northern Alliance, assisted by foreign friends, will seek to defend strongholds in the North. In other words, we will have a return to the situation that prevailed from ’96 to 2001 when the Taliban controlled much of the territory but the war situation continued. Last August, the Taliban controlled 13 percent of Afghanistan, with another 30 percent being contested Afghanistan is not the only prism through which the US views Pakistan. Ex-President Karzai said, most recently at the January ’18 New Delhi Raisina Dialogue, he was deeply offended when Vice President Biden told him that Pakistan was fifty times more important than Afghanistan. Karzai deemed this insulting to Afghanistan but Biden did not mean this as an insult for Afghanistan or as a compliment to Pakistan. It was rather a recognition that the stability of the only Muslim Nuclear weapon holder was a primary concern for the US. Even under the mercurial President Trump, I believe this weighs heavily. This does not mean that animus towards Pakistan, driven by the unshakeable belief that insurgents operating from Pakistan killed Americans and their allies in Afghanistan will decline in the US in the short term, or that we can move immediately towards the people to people relations that Armitage had spoken of. Today, public opinion in Pakistan gives low marks to the USA and this is mirrored in America’s public opinion of Pakistan. A better relationship will take time to build. It will certainly come sooner rather than later if Pakistan’s internal reforms give it economic development and political certainty, encouraging Americans to look our way for investment and trade opportunities. There is yet another prism through which Washington views Pakistan and that is Pakistan’s relationship with China, a country classified as America’s strategic competitor. Pakistan’s partnership in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as the flagship project of the Belt and Road Initiative that the US chooses to see as a Chinese effort at economic domination of participating countries and the acquisition thereby of political influence that would threaten what the Americans see as the benign American dominated global political order. Associated with this of course is the strategic relationship America is seeking with India as part of a “China containment strategy”. How far the Indians will go along may become apparent after the Indo-American talks but this is certainly not a point on which we can see any agreement. As I see it therefore all the three prisms through which Pompeo views US-Pak relations differences exist The decisions we make on our Afghan policy must therefore be based on our perception of our national interest and not those of the US or any other country. What is our interest in Afghanistan? A stable Afghanistan at peace with itself and its neighbours and able to be the transit route for Pakistan and countries eastward to trade with Central Asia. The benefits can be substantial. TAPI bringing gas to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India would do wonders for the Afghan economy and provide a measure of economic interdependence which would augur well for regional cooperation. Combined exploitation of the mineral resources of Afghanistan and Balochistan could yield substantial benefits. Copper ore from Afghanistan’s Aynak mine can be refined jointly with copper ore from Reqo Diq. Hajigak iron ore can be used by Pakistan’s steel mill. Afghanistan’s other mineral resources can reach international markets via Gwadar. What stands in the way? It cannot be that the Taliban really expect to win or that we want them to win. A nightmare for Pakistani planners is the onset of a civil war in Afghanistan with the Taliban being on our border and seeking once again to make our tribal areas their “strategic depth”. Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that our planners have been obsessed with preventing the growth of Indian influence and its use against Pakistan. So we have stories of India having 42 consulates in Afghanistan —in fact they have four just as we do — and of India using Afghan bases and support for Baloch dissidents to add to our troubles in Balochistan. I am quite clear that the Indian presence and RAW’s relations with NDS-the Afghan intelligence service-does add to their capacity to make mischief for us. But how much does it add? India has a long border with Pakistan which has been fenced and electrified by them. They have used this border in the past to push unwanted Bangladeshis caught in India into Pakistan. Stories in Karachi suggest that they did so with Rohingyas also and as a result Karachi has Rohingyas and Bangladeshi colonies. Perhaps I am wrong. PM Imran Khan’s team should find out but my main point is that the border is porous from our perspective and can be used to infiltrate people into Pakistan. We have a coastline which is often termed a smuggler’s paradise through which much by way of material and manpower can be infiltrated into Pakistan generally and into Balochistan particularly. So in the face of this reality is it worthwhile to jeopardise our relations and economic interests in that brotherly country on the basis of these insubstantial apprehensions? Would pressure on the Taliban create a blowback? Quite possible. I am not in a position to judge accurately but if not today then tomorrow we will have to face this issue if we are to prevent the “Talibanisation” of Pakistan —a fate that our newly elected leaders view with the same abhorrence as the general public. The Taliban have been negotiating with the Americans in Doha. They have I think sought assurances that they will in negotiations be treated as equals of the Afghan government in Kabul, that the Americans will participate, that a date certain for foreign troop withdrawal will be part of the negotiations, that their safety when they move into Afghanistan will be guaranteed by the QCG (China Pakistan, USA and Afghanistan). In return they have perhaps reiterated their pledge that they will not seek a monopoly of power, that they will cooperate with all ethnic groups and that even while seeking a renegotiation of the Afghan constitution they will not insist on provisions unacceptable to the world. It is noteworthy that the Taliban sent a delegation from Doha to Uzbekistan. I interpret this as an effort to reassure Central Asian leaders that their sharing of power in Afghanistan will not lead to an export of their ideology to Central Asia, a fear that the Soviet era leaders in Central Asia have long entertained. What should we do in the forthcoming talks? I have identified some items but on the main subject we should say that for our own reasons we will seek to persuade the Taliban to enter into talks but before doing so we would like the QCG to meet and endorse the points mentioned above as also acknowledge the fact that the Taliban-Afghan Government talks will be long and arduous and the immediate result may only be ceasefires of the nature of the Eid-ul-Fitr ceasefire but of a longer duration. Perhaps the Prime Minister may find it useful to ask past and recent policy makers for their views on these suggestions before Pompeo arrives. The writer is former foreign secretary, and former Pakistani ambassador to the US, Canada, Iran and Germany. He currently heads the Global and Regional Studies Centre at IoBM, Karachi Published in Daily Times, August 31st 2018.