“The best way to resolve any problem in the human world is for all sides to sit down and talk,” so said the Dalai Lama, and for the most part, it is probably true.
So when the leaders of countries talk, one should expect that the problems between their countries will be, if not resolved, at least alleviated -- reduced in importance in the countries’ relationship.
Leaders can, and sometimes do, agree to disagree, and that in itself implies a better level of understanding between the two.
Thus, even though the meetings have not yet taken place, the visit of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to Washington to talk with President Obama draws my attention.
According to news reports, PM Sharif’s agenda begins with Afghanistan and the assertion that Pakistan’s policy of seeking a negotiated settlement there has not changed despite the current rough patch in its relations with the Afghan government.
Recently, the Pakistan foreign ministry announced it is still holding open the possibility of facilitating peace talks between the Afghan government and the insurgent forces in the country, primarily the Afghan Taliban.
These efforts have broken down as Afghanistan has blamed Pakistan for sheltering hostile forces that have perpetrated recent vicious attacks in and around Kabul.
The belief that Pakistan is sheltering insurgent forces, primarily the Haqqani Group -- because of the long history of a proxy relationship between the ISI and the Haqqanis -- is neither new nor surprising.
It did not seem credible that the ISI would abandon that relationship completely or easily. Of late, this has come to the fore in the US-Pakistan relationship. The US has pressured Pakistan to stop helping the Haqqanis, and President Obama will certainly raise this early in the conversation.
I am not sure that PM Sharif will welcome President Obama’s explanation of his decision from last Thursday to keep more US troops in Afghanistan, at least through 2017. On the one hand, this decision is probably in Pakistan’s long-tern interests, as it should at least ensure that the insurgent Taliban are not able to control all of Afghanistan.
I assume that it was the conclusion -- though late in coming -- that a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan is not in Pakistan’s long-term interests, which prompted an effort to facilitate peace talks in the first place (even if the proxy relationships with the Haqqanis, though perhaps attenuated, remained in place behind the curtain).
On the other hand, there remain strong political voices in Pakistan that still believe that it is the US presence in Afghanistan that is causing violence (dare I write, insurgency) in Pakistan, and for some the simplistic assumption that if the US went away, all of Pakistan’s security problems would go away. Sharif may face a domestic opposition that believes that, although he does not face election very soon.
News reports of the upcoming visit also mention that the US is reported by the NY Times to have hatched a plan, which it says is under discussion with Pakistan to “limit the scope” of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. It is not clear to me what “limit the scope” means in this context.
Does it mean to limit the number of nuclear weapons, the kind of nuclear weapons, or the context in which they would be used? There has been a continuing and increasing worry among non-proliferation experts in the US as the size and variety of these weapons grow quickly in the Pakistani arsenal.
Soon, I have been told, the Pakistani arsenal will exceed that of France, and could continue to grow quickly at the rate of present production of fissile material.
Pakistani officials have continued to insist that this arsenal is specific to India, which is a derivative of the almost 70-year-old doctrine that India is the existential threat to Pakistan.
Washington is reportedly prepared to offer Pakistan a waiver to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group, but it is not clear from the public reports what the price for Pakistan would be in terms of its nuclear arsenal.
Nor is it clear to me that entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group makes any sense as an incentive, if Pakistan continues to regard that arsenal as its main deterrent to an existential threat.
This is supported by background statements from Pakistani officials that insist that Pakistan would need an international conflict resolution mechanism between Islamabad and New Delhi as the price for limitations on its nuclear arsenal.
This sounds to me as if it would require, inter alia, either some internationally arranged resolution of the “Kashmir question,” or some way to ensure that Pakistan can still try to separate Kashmir from India with impunity -- both of which strike me as highly unlikely.
As to the discussions on Afghanistan, President Obama’s decision to leave more US troops there longer than he envisioned is the newest and most interesting development. There are, among the President’s critics in the US, two views.
Some are disappointed that he did not stick to his original schedule -- not because of any effect it would have had on Pakistan, but because a large portion of his own party are fed up with the war and think the US should pack up and leave by 2016 as promised, and let Afghanistan fend for itself.
Most of these critics would be horrified, however, if that were to lead to a Taliban takeover and the re-imposition of the Taliban version of Sharia on the Afghan population, especially women.
A second group of critics, a smaller number probably, believes the president should have left a stronger force with more fire-power to ensure that the Taliban can’t win.
What the President may have done is to ensure that his successor still has the option to ramp up the effort in Afghanistan to levels that would guarantee that outcome, or to go back to the strategic path he chose earlier, ie to let Afghans sink or swim on their own (after expending much blood and treasure to help them rebuild their army and state).
It would be interesting to learn if the Obama/Sharif discussions get to the core of the problem. Research has shown that, since 1968, only about 43% of the almost 650 insurgencies the world has experienced ended with a transition to peace through a negotiation that included the insurgents.
Almost the same number, 40%, ended through police action. Importantly, only 7% end in military victory over the insurgents.
What these numbers don’t show is that most of the 40% that ended through police action were very small groups with very limited, if any, domestic support, which could be taken down by efficient police action. Trustworthy reports now show that the Taliban control or contest about 20% of Afghan territory.
They are on a roll. So, getting the Taliban to the table is a necessary component of a political solution that would avoid the horrors of a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan -- with its enormous refugee implications. Their interest in negotiating an inclusive political solution would seem negligible at present.