US Af-Pak policy was once again in focus with Vice President Joe Biden visiting Kabul and Islamabad while President Asif Zardari was in Washington for the memorial service of Richard Holbrooke. With President Obama due for a trip to Islamabad this year and the Pakistani establishment as recalcitrant as ever another policy stalemate is evident. On the other hand there is much progress in ground operations in Afghanistan during the winter leading Biden who supports a small footprint-counter terrorism policy to overcome Afghan apprehensions of a total US pull out by stating that they would not leave the Afghans high and dry after 2014.
First Pakistan, President Zardari met US President Barack Obama in what was regarded as a non official visit for the records. Facing a political crisis back home, the official version was that Mr Zardari focused on counter terrorism, though cynics saw a move to seek support at the highest level in Washington. The main happenings however were in Islamabad with Vice President Mr Joe Biden meeting with General Pervez Kiyani the Pakistani Chief of Army Staff to possibly cajole him into action in North Waziristan now that the winter is not as severe in the region.
With the political crisis in Pakistan resolved for the time being the visit of US Vice President Joe Biden was in the limelight for there was much that to be resolved between the two sides given differences on operational issues as well as support the US was providing to Islamabad. As usual it was anticipated that there was likely to be more demands from the Pakistani side for US assistance including military aid. News reports emanating from Islamabad indicate that General Kiyani and his staff are reported to have clearly indicated to the US Vice President concerns over violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and increasing alignment with New Delhi. The General reportedly rebuffed Mr Biden thus there was no largesse announced for the first time after an important dignitary from US had visited Pakistan.
US Pakistan relations have always remained on the cusp of vulnerability and there have been frequent ups and downs from time to time, while a number of mechanisms have been tried out from that of a strategic dialogue to military to military leadership now it is evident that the US is attempting the final dice possibly that of the President’s visit in a few months and the atmosphere was being shaped over a period with this purpose in mind.
The Afghan solution would be remain in limbo till the Pakistan military leadership is on board but reluctance of the same and the time frame for a pull out is forcing the US and the Coalition into a corner and the Pakistani generals aware of this dilemma are not providing any succor either. The US would thus have to continue to play the policy of carrots and sticks to gain some leeway ahead.
In Afghanistan there was better reception for Mr Biden. The Vice President’s assurance that America will not cut and run in 2014, when the US-led military coalition plans to hand over control of security to Afghan forces was reassuring to many. Speaking after a meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Biden said training and aid will continue even after responsibility for security is handed over.
This was welcome news for the Afghan President as well as others who are worried about the fall out in case a stable and strong government which cannot resist pressures from the Taliban or other warring groups would fester in the country. The requirement of international support to the Afghan government beyond 2014 would remain and that would also be in the form of security as well as development and governance. Which agency will provide such support is what is to be decided now so that a clear signal goes to the Taliban that while the security support by NATO and other coalition partners to the country is likely to come down an alternate arrangement under the UN or other agencies will be in place. This will be an effective measure to reassure the moderates in Afghanistan that they are not likely to be abandoned by the international community for the Soviet redux continues to haunt the Afghans each time there is talk about a pull out by the coalition.
The Af-Pak situation is shrouded in many uncertainties, yet in any and every counter insurgency situation it is the side that sticks on wins. The Taliban and the Pakistani establishment are aware and have the endurance to last out the stand off, with US President Joe Biden announcing that the US may stay, there is now a dilemma for the guerrillas, may be they would have to rethink their strategy in the days ahead.