Dr Marvin Weinbaum, the scholar-in-residence at the Middle East Institute, was an Afghanistan and Pakistan analyst at US State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence Research. He is also a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois where he earlier directed the Programme in South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. Dr Weinbaum has worked as a senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace, and held Fulbright research fellowships for Afghanistan and Egypt.
On August 16, Thursday, the Herald invited Dr Marvin Weinbaum to a live online discussion about how the supply route reopening may reshape frayed ties between Washington and Islamabad. The discussion has been edited for space, clarity and grammar.
Comment From A Vetta. People do not like foreign troops in their land. President Bush Senior did the right thing by getting out of Iraq after the first Iraq war. His son decided to stay and look what is happening in Iraq. The only sane policy for the USA is to get out leaving a few thousand well equipped soldiers in Afghanistan to deter foreign adventurers. What do you think?
Dr Marvin Weinbaum. That the US and NATO should not have an indefinite military commitment in Afghanistan is precisely where American policy is presently. By the end of 2014, the US is likely to have about 20,000 troops remaining in largely non-combat roles. This will be important for maintaining the morale and cohesion of the Afghan security forces. The departure of large numbers of ISAF troops is expected to deal with the fact that Afghans have lost patience with foreign forces on their soil.
Comment From Shereyar. Why do you think it took the US so long to apologise for the Salala incident?
Dr Marvin Weinbaum. The conclusion of the US military’s investigation was that both sides were to blame for the events at Salala. When spokespersons in Pakistan suggested that attack was deliberate, it made it difficult for an American administration to buy into this scenario. Even so, an agreement was in hand earlier in the year but Pakistan’s foreign minister asked that it be delayed by a couple of weeks. Shortly after, there was the attack in Kabul on the US embassy that Washington traced to the Haqqani Network. At this point, it became particularly difficult in this election year for the US to issue a straight-out apology. Also, if public feelings in Pakistan about the incident were not running so high, it would have been easier for Islamabad to compromise on the wording.
Comment From Ansar. Do you think it was morally, ethically and politically correct of the Pakistan government to impose a ban on Nato supplies?
Dr Marvin Weinbaum. Pakistan has always held out the possibility of closure on the border crossing as leverage in negotiating with the US. The decision to do so was probably unavoidable in light of the high degree of public anger in Pakistan over Salala and Abbottabad—fueled by the military and media. Islamabad no doubt expected that with such strong popular backing and given the importance of the supply routes that it could drive a hard bargain and that the the US would be forced to settle on Pakistan’s terms. The surprise to everyone, including people in the US, was the American willingness to use the far more expensive northern routes, thus giving it a strong bargaining position.
Comment From Haider Naqvi. In your opinion, how far has the disruption of NATO supplies led to a disruption in the actual relationship between the USA & Pakistan? More specifically, have the events of the last 8-9 months led to any serious introspection, on the part of the Pakistani establishment; about its involvement in the War on Terror while simultaneously pursuing “strategic depth” in the region by supporting certain militant groups. Similarly, has the US reviewed its policy of engagement with elements of the Pakistani state whose paranoid focus on national security has been detrimental to American interests? Was there an opportunity within this morass to reconfigure Pak-US ties and was this opportunity squandered or do you see a considerable shift having taken place?
Dr Marvin Weinbaum. The developments over past 18 months has obviously sharply set back US-Pakistan relations and led to reassessments on both sides. There has developed perhaps a more realistic understanding of where the national interests of both countries in fact diverge and overlap. Gone are some of our illusions about a full, trusting partnership. Yet, out of this, greater realism may emerge on the War on Terror that while narrow in scope can lead to real cooperation. Pakistan and the US are increasingly on the same page in wanting to see a stable Afghanistan and in understanding the dangers of a Taliban ascendance. Pakistan probably no longer believes in strategic depth in the sense that it could have a pliant Kabul government. It would settle for having a regime in Kabul that was at least not unfriendly, that is, too close to India. Today strategic depth is a useful term only in talking how Taliban insurgencies in Afghanistan and Pakistan could reinforce one another should the border effectively disappear.
Comment From Husain Naqvi. What problems does the US govt face when dealing with the Pakistani government regarding the Afghan issue? What are the greatest obstacles?
Dr Marvin Weinbaum. Many of the problems that US face with Pakistan over Afghanistan will lessen once the US military presence in Afghanistan is reduced. Without the supply need, the US will have less dependence on Pakistan, and Pakistan will not have the US to blame for many of its home-grown problems. In the end this will be a healthier relationship. For the time being it may be that the greatest obstacle to better relations is the sanctuary that Afghan insurgent groups find in Pakistan. There is deep resentment in the US over the fact that its troops are being killed by forces that move easily across the border. Unfortunately, there is less understanding of the obstacles that Pakistan faces in trying to prevent infiltration. But this could be largely overcome if it were felt that Pakistan has the political will to deal with all of its militant extremist groups.
Dr Marvin Weinbaum. Due to time constraints I now have to leave. It was great talking to you all. Thank you. Have a good night.