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EDITORIAL: National Security Adviser (NSA) Moeed Yusuf met his US counterpart Jake Sullivan in Washington to discuss the situation in Afghanistan and US-Pakistan relations going forward. Reports speak of a 'tough' conversation on the former issue, which meant the latter could only be improved if there is a political settlement in Afghanistan, a prospect that seems dim considering the situation on the ground amidst a fierce Taliban offensive. Whether the tough talking got Moeed Yusuf's goat or there was some purpose in mind, his interview with The Financial Times seemed to throw down the gauntlet to a US seemingly less than warm towards Pakistan. Moeed Yusuf was particularly peeved by the fact that US President Joe Biden had not so far called and spoken to Prime Minister Imran Khan. In response to this diplomatic affront, he said Pakistan has "other options" if the US President continues to 'ignore' the Pakistani leadership. Although he declined to elaborate, most observers saw this as a less than subtle hint at Pakistan's relationship with its 'iron brother' China. While it is true that Pakistan and China enjoy close and friendly relations that are likely to benefit Pakistan, including the flagship CPEC project, 'veiled threats' to a superpower are neither good diplomacy nor likely to advance Pakistan's interests. China may be our go-to friend in times of dire need, but it is unlikely to be able, or willing, to replace Pakistan's global donors or lenders or help Pakistan get out of the FATF grip and demolish the (spurious) charge that the country is guilty of using child soldiers. The clout that Washington wields in the world, not only in military terms, but also in its leverage over institutions such as the IMF, World Bank, Asian Development Bank, etc., and its influence in the FATF process, etc., could prove crucial to Pakistan's chances of gaining the financial flows it requires to keep its economy afloat. A less challenging posture therefore may have been the greater wisdom, not a seeming cocking a snook.

Ironically, Washington in public has spoken softly and diplomatically regarding Pakistan's role in facilitating the US troops' withdrawal and efforts to forge a negotiated political settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban despite their suspicions about Islamabad's role in the Taliban insurgency. To illustrate, former US President Donald Trump, not known for diplomatic finesse, severed some $ 2 billion in security assistance to Pakistan, accusing it of peddling "nothing but lies and deceit" vis-à-vis Afghanistan. But even Trump reversed himself and invited Prime Minister Imran Khan to the White House once the Doha process between the US and the Taliban, lubricated by Pakistani efforts, got rolling. Even today, amidst the Taliban's rapid successes in taking isolated military posts, important border crossings and now laying siege to at least three provincial capitals, Lashkar Gah, Kandahar and Herat, and even attacking Kabul, the State Department and various other voices continue to heap praise on Pakistan for 'helping out' in Afghanistan. Now all this could of course be double speak, but that is how intelligent diplomacy is conducted in the state's interests, not by bellicose sounding challenges such as 'Pakistan is too important to be ignored by the US'. If Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Special Ambassador who pulled off the Doha deal is heard at a conference in Aspen, Colorado, he has explicated the distance that still divides the Afghan government, which wants to offer the Taliban a share in its ranks, and the Taliban, who want a 'lion's share of power'. The gulf between these two positions bodes ill for any peace process, howsoever described. Unfortunately, however, it appears guns, not words, are the currency that is deciding the fate of Afghanistan, an outcome that may have its inevitable negative fallout for US-Pakistan relations, with all the attendant difficulties Pakistan may land in.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021

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