Dhaka, Bangladesh
Ties with US and Afghanistan

Ties with US and Afghanistan

By Najmuddin A. Shaikh

THE tasks for the new government, whenever it takes charge, are enormous. Its first focus must be on internal reform. But because of FATF, regional security, a complex global situation occasioned by the Trump-led assault on allies and adversaries alike, and our parlous forex reserves which make recourse to the IMF inevitable, it is essential that incoming prime minister Imran Khan and his team give equal time to foreign policy. Especially since it relates to relations with the US and that is tied today to relations with Afghanistan. A qualified foreign minister must be appointed to lead a Foreign Office which has to be assured that this institution, for that is what it is, will perform the task of formulating policy recommendations in consultation with other organs of state - among them the armed forces and security agencies - and then implement policies approved by the cabinet. It must ensure that parliament is briefed regularly in open and in camera sessions. The first priority has to be Afghanistan. What are the factors to be considered? First the 'foreign presence' which, including civil contractors for the US and the International Security Assistance Force, numbers around 70,000 cannot be maintained without using Pakistan's air space and overland routes. There's no alternate route. Independent of what the Americans want, do we derive any advantage from hosting the Afghan Taliban leadership on our soil? Second, this year the National Defence Authorisation Act passed by the US Congress last month provides what is essentially the Coalition Support Funds of yore at a level of $350 million as against $900m in 2017. This will be disbursed to a number of countries to strengthen border security and will have few conditions attached beyond the fact that utilisation is coordinated with the other country and the Americans. Border security and border management is a project we have been working on and assistance in this regard would be welcome and in line with our priorities. Third, one reliable report suggests that the sum earmarked for Pakistan under this head is $150m. The Americans have always maintained that as a matter of principle they do not pay transit fees to countries through which their supplies move and they use other methods to provide compensation. Is $150m adequate compensation? Does this also mean aid which was suspended or will that sum - amounting to over $1 billion by one estimate - be available if Pakistan-US differences are resolved? Fourth, a clear-headed analysis would suggest that we favour a US presence because in its absence, aid, which finances to the tune of $4.1bn the Afghan National Defence Forces and 58 per cent of the Afghan budget, would disappear or be drastically reduced. This would dramatically raise Afghanistan's unemployment rate currently at 40pc, put on the roads discharged soldiers with few skills other than bearing a gun, and cause the sort of economic distress that will bring hordes of refugees across the only border that still remains open viz Pakistan. My estimate is that even in the best of circumstances - reconciliation, doubling of Afghan agriculture production, reduction of opium production, relatively high transit fees for South Asian trade with Central Asia - it will be 2030-35 before Afghanistan's economy can achieve a measure of self-sustaining stability. Fifth, India is in Afghanistan as a provider of aid which so far has amounted to about $2bn. Its presence is welcomed by the Afghan populace. As an active adversary, there is no doubt that it uses its presence, in tandem with anti-Pakistan forces in Afghanistan, to augment its capacity for creating mischief in Balochistan. Our security agencies are rightly concerned. The question is of what consequence is this added capacity, given that India has a long permeable border with Pakistan. Fencing at this border is only Indian and has been the route through which, in the past, it has pushed Bangladeshi nationals captured in India into Pakistan. We have a coastline that has often been termed a smugglers' paradise. Should Pakistan-Afghanistan relations and Afghan stability, a long-sought-after Pakistani goal, be put at risk for an augmentation that is if not minimal not very substantial? Sixth, Afghans claim rightly that, as part of the promised cooperation on not providing shelter to Pakistan's enemies on Afghan soil, their allies have, in drone attacks in Afghanistan, killed a number of TTP leaders including Mullah Fazlullah and four other senior TTP commanders. This was followed by the killing of Umar Rehman, another leading TTP commander. The US would add that earlier when drones were operating more frequently in Pakistan and Afghan air space, former leader Baitullah Mehsud, Hakeemullah Mehsud, Said Khan Sajna, Mufti Waliur Rahman, Qari Hussain, Azam Tariq and Shahidullah Shahid were all eliminated. Also, in each of the past three years, there were fewer than 10 drone strikes in Pakistan, down from a high of 117 in 2010. Perhaps they could do more, but have they experienced reciprocity? Seventh, this raises the most important question we have to address. Independent of what the Americans want, do we derive any advantage from hosting the Afghan Taliban leadership on our soil? Clear thinking suggests that if the Taliban remain on our soil, and if the US, pushed by Trump's inclination to retreat into 'Fortress America', sees no vital interest in staying, we will have a situation where, in an impoverished Afghanistan, the Taliban will control the provinces bordering on Pakistan, the erstwhile Northern Alliance the north, and a civil war will ensue. The Taliban's natural allies will be the TTP - decimated but not destroyed - alongside whom they had fought against the Soviets and then the Rabbani-Hikmatyar governments. All that will result is turbulence in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Is that what we need? If we do ask the Taliban to leave after receiving guarantees that they will be negotiating partners and not pariahs in Afghanistan, our relation even with Trump's US will improve. But that is the benefit we will enjoy for a decision made in our own interest.

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