What a Year of Track II Discussions Says About the Future of U.S.-Pakistan Relations


On May 1, 1960, an American spy plane — having taken off from an airbase in Pakistan — was downed over Soviet skies, sparking a major Cold War crisis. As tensions grew, the prominent public intellectual Norman Cousins, a friend of U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, invited a group of private American and Russian citizens to a meeting at Dartmouth College to discuss ways forward.

This gathering, according to a 2011 Foreign Policy essay by Charles Homans, established a new form of diplomacy, known as Track II: discussions between nongovernment interlocutors meant to build trust and pursue cooperation during trying times for relations between countries. Track II dialogues have become a popular way for experts and former practitioners to try to lay the groundwork for smoother exchanges on official levels.

Over the last year, our respective institutions, the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington and the Regional Peace Institute in Islamabad, co-hosted four rounds of Track II dialogue on U.S.-Pakistan relations. The a volatile partnership is in a precarious state thanks in large part to a new South Asia strategy in Washington that has rankled Islamabad, but also to Washington’s increasing impatience with what it sees as Islamabad’s consistent inaction against terrorists who threaten Americans. Two rounds of dialogue took place in Washington, and two in Islamabad. The main participants were former senior American and Pakistani government and military officials, and other experts on U.S.-Pakistan relations were in the room serving as discussants and making occasional interventions.

Our main takeaway from a year of discussions is sobering: While there are still very real convergences in U.S.-Pakistan relations, the divergences are deep and daunting. Indeed, we came away with a sense that the United States and Pakistan will struggle mightily to reach common ground anytime soon on the issues generating some of the greatest tensions in the relationship: Afghanistan, India, and the Haqqani Network terrorist group. This bodes ill for a relationship already under considerable strain, and which could face major tests in the coming months.

The Right Time for a Track II

The timing for our dialogue was propitious. In August, U.S. President Donald Trump announced a South Asia strategy that infuriated Islamabad with its strongly worded demand that Pakistan crack down on terrorist safe havens and its explicit call for India, Pakistan’s bitter enemy, to step up its role in Afghanistan. “The authors of the strategy did a great disservice to U.S.-Pakistan relations,” lamented one of our Pakistani participants. Trump administration officials have suggested they could implement punitive and, in some cases, unprecedented measures — from expanded drone strikes to the sanctioning of Pakistani officials with ties to terror — if Pakistan doesn’t clear out sanctuaries on its soil. To this end, an upcoming visit to Islamabad by U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis could involve some uncomfortable discussions.

This has all unfolded against the backdrop of an increasingly unfavorable geopolitical climate for U.S.-Pakistan relations, with Washington deepening its relationship with New Delhi since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in 2014 and Islamabad cementing its partnership with Beijing since the close allies launched the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in 2015. The relationship also suffers from longstanding mutual mistrust rooted in underlying grievances and actual crises (including a CIA agent’s killing of two Pakistanis on a major city thoroughfare and the U.S. unilateral raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound).

One might predict, as some analysts in both the United States and Pakistan have suggested, that the United States and Pakistan will conclude that they simply don’t need each other anymore.

Real, But Few, Convergences 

And yet, our Track II deliberations indicated little appetite for a divorce — and ample interest in making things work, at least to the extent possible in this troubled marriage. Of the several dozen Americans and Pakistanis involved in the dialogue over the year, not one suggested it was time to give up on the relationship and let it wither away.

When it comes to pathways for future cooperation, however, our discussions suggested the pickings are slim. One problem is that participants proposed and embraced a number of ideas that may prove too ambitious for a U.S. administration likely to focus narrowly on hard security issues in U.S.-Pakistan relations. This is, after all, an administration that has sought to marginalize — by cutting budgets and refusing to fill senior positions — the State Department, typically the agency that manages the non-security aspects of U.S.-Pakistan ties (along with USAID, which also faces budget cuts and has already suffered job cuts). Additionally, a senior White House South Asia official, briefing our participants in August, bluntly stated that Trump’s Pakistan policy will revolve around protecting American lives — suggesting that terrorism and security concerns will take center stage in the relationship. In contrast, the Obama administration launched and oversaw a U.S.-Pakistan strategic dialogue process that entailed annual high-level meetings on a variety of security and non-security issues. The Trump administration has so far not continued this process.

Nonetheless, participants identified several concrete options for non-security collaborations. These included intensifying cooperation on U.S.-funded regional connectivity projects like the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline and the CASA-1000 hydroelectricity project involving Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Interestingly, there was some talk of possible U.S. contributions to CPEC, though participants conceded that private-sector partnerships may be more realistic than government efforts. Other suggestions that would arguably have been more feasible in the pre-Trump era included scaling up economic investments in Pakistan and facilitating access to U.S. markets for Pakistani exports.

Two of the most promising and actionable areas of cooperation to emerge from the dialogue were discussed in considerable detail at all four rounds. One is counterterrorism cooperation targeting terror groups that threaten both countries — groups such as the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda, but especially the Afghanistan/Pakistan-based faction of ISIL, a more recent entrant into South Asia’s militant milieu. Participants recommended that the United States and Pakistan model anti-ISIL efforts on the successful intelligence-sharing regime to target al-Qaeda in the years after the 9/11 attacks of 2001. This cooperation endured even in 2011, when relations were in deep crisis. That September, the two countries announced they had worked together to arrest a senior al-Qaeda figure in the province of Baluchistan. Several Pakistanis also called on Washington to aid Islamabad’s counterterrorism capacities by scaling up support for civilian institutions like the police and the National Counter Terrorism Authority.

The other notable convergence relates to border security management along the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier. Several participants from both sides expressed robust support for reviving the border coordination center that was originally established a decade ago, but was suspended when U.S.-Pakistan relations fell into crisis in 2011. The crisis was catalyzed by CIA agent Raymond Davis’ killing of two Pakistani men in Lahore, the raid on Bin Laden’s compound, and an accidental attack by NATO helicopters that killed 24 Pakistani border troops — and prompted Islamabad to close down NATO supply routes on its soil until the Obama administration apologized for the tragedy nearly a year later. The border mechanism was meant to help Washington, Kabul, and Islamabad jointly tackle cross-border security threats. However, while the American participants acknowledged Pakistani concerns about cross-border terrorism emanating from Afghanistan, the Pakistanis were less sympathetic to American concerns about the same problem originating on the Pakistani side — suggesting a possible obstacle to this otherwise promising point of agreement.

Nonetheless, both of these pathways for cooperation have precedents. If successfully taken forward, they could help strengthen stability in Pakistan — one of the few genuinely shared interests between Washington and Islamabad.

Deepening Divergences

However, when it comes to the countries’ other chief concerns, our discussions reinforced what the constant tensions in U.S.-Pakistani ties have long shown: interests and objectives simply don’t align. On many levels, our Track II was a dialogue of dissonance.

Take the political and security situation in Afghanistan, perhaps the most compelling reason for the United States and Pakistan to cooperate. Participants conceded that both countries share a hope for stability, vaguely defined, in that country — but admitted that the United States and Pakistan prefer very different means to achieve that end. There were disagreements about U.S. objectives in Afghanistan (does the United States wish to stay in the country to push back against Chinese influence or to combat terror?) and the degree of Pakistani influence over the Afghan Taliban (the Pakistanis insisted it’s limited; some Americans disagreed). Almost all the Pakistanis agreed that reconciliation with the Taliban offers the best hope of ending the war, but the American side was split.

At any rate, the two sides failed to agree on how, or whether, the Americans and Pakistanis can partner in a reconciliation process — a challenge that continues to elude the two governments. The biggest achievement so far has been the willingness of Pakistan and the United States to participate, alongside Afghanistan and China, in a Quadrilateral Coordination Group to discuss reconciliation, but no Taliban representative has been present at these meetings.

There was also significant daylight between the two sides on the Haqqani Network — one of the biggest tension points in U.S.-Pakistan relations. This group, which is closely aligned with the Afghan Taliban and also retains deep ties to al-Qaeda, has long been regarded by U.S. officials as one of, if not the top, threats to Americans in Afghanistan. Significantly, American officials contend that the Pakistani security establishment harbors ties to the Haqqani Network; provides it sanctuary; and refuses to go after the group because the security establishment views it as a useful non-state asset for pushing back against India in Afghanistan. Washington and New Delhi have blamed the Haqqanis for attacks on Indian diplomatic facilities in Kabul.

So, while both sides agreed on the need for cooperation against the likes of the Pakistani Taliban and ISIL, when it came to the group that Americans believe threatens their armed forces the most, there were few convergences to be found.

The two sides fundamentally disagreed on the nature of the Haqqani Network threat, the group’s location, and its possible role in Afghan reconciliation — a pitch by several Pakistanis for the Haqqanis to be considered a negotiating partner did not go down well with American participants. More broadly, discussions on militancy in Pakistan — aside from conversations about limited counterterrorism cooperation — were mired in disconnects. Many Pakistani participants insisted that militant safe havens are a thing of the past, while Americans insisted they remain a clear and present danger.

India, predictably, presented another deep divergence. Pakistanis repeatedly painted their enemy as a destabilizing actor in South Asia. Americans repeatedly depicted India as an important actor in the region, and indicated little support for their Pakistani counterparts’ allegations of Indian mischief in Pakistan.

Several Pakistanis sought to strike a sanguine tone, saying a deepening U.S.-India relationship could help Islamabad by better enabling Washington to help ease India-Pakistan tensions, particularly over India-administered Kashmir. However, the Americans were skeptical that Washington would want to plunge too deeply into the delicate matter of Kashmir, particularly given that New Delhi has expressed little interest in external mediation. Some Americans, however, did emphasize Washington’s interest in helping avert future India-Pakistan conflict, and championed the idea of the U.S. government promoting deeper India-Pakistan trade relations. 

Lessons for U.S.-Pakistan Relations

On the one hand, our dialogue highlighted the continued potential for bilateral cooperation on counterterrorism and border management, an encouraging sign for a relationship poised to revolve largely around security issues in the coming months.

At the same time, the Trump administration’s new South Asia policy is elevating to top priority the very policy issues that generated the greatest divergences at our dialogue. Washington, for example, aims to continue the policy of the four previous U.S. presidents of pursuing deeper relations with New Delhi — and has taken the unprecedented step of publicly calling on India to deepen its footprint in Afghanistan. Unlike the Obama administration, however, the current White House has vowed to use new and harsh measures if it believes Pakistan is not taking sufficient action against terrorists. Given the deep concern with which Washington views the Haqqani Network, Pakistani inaction against the Haqqanis would be one of the factors most likely to lead America to deploy punitive measures against Pakistan. Finally, the United States is ramping up its military fight in Afghanistan, effectively putting on ice — at least for now — the pursuit of a reconciliation process that Pakistanis at our dialogue insisted is essential.

The issues on which our participants disagreed and diverged the most will drive, if not dominate, U.S.-Pakistan relations for the foreseeable future. Bilateral relations are likely to suffer in a big way, and for an extended period.

To this end, perhaps the most salient recommendation to emerge from our dialogue was procedural, not policy-oriented: Take U.S.-Pakistan relations out of the spotlight and ramp up private, behind-the-scenes diplomacy to build trust — a quality in which the current relationship is dangerously deficient. More broadly, both sides called for more conversations between their governments on various issues — from seeing if there’s any common ground on the Haqqani Network issue to ascertaining if there’s an Afghan endgame that can satisfy both Pakistani and American interests.

Quiet diplomacy, our participants asserted, enjoys a track record of success. One American, a former senior State Department official, pointed out that U.S.-Pakistan counterterrorism cooperation — the participant used the example of IED interdiction — has worked best when undertaken discreetly.

This focus on the importance of talking more speaks to the need for our Track II dialogue to continue — which we hope it will next year. True, the United States and Pakistan may not be in the throes of a Cold War crisis, as the Americans and Soviets were in 1960 after that plane went down. There may also not be as much at stake for global stability now as there was when Norman Cousins’ distinguished group of Russians and Americans convened at Dartmouth to launch the first known Track II effort. And yet, when it comes to U.S.-Pakistan relations, the time remains ripe to pursue a key goal of Track II diplomacy: Explore ways to bring some breathing room to a troubled yet important relationship that faces difficult days ahead.

Winston Churchill is famously quoted as saying, “It is better to jaw jaw than to war war.” But in fact, extending our Track II discussions can bring benefits that go beyond the avoidance of escalation and conflict. By continuing to talk, our participants have had opportunities to develop more formal proposals about counterterrorism cooperation, one of our few areas of convergence. And if these proposals are pitched to officialdom, and carried out effectively by both nations, the U.S.-Pakistan relationship could boast new initiatives that help prevent American and Pakistani lives from being lost at the hands of the Pakistani Taliban, al-Qaeda, ISIL, and other terror groups that stalk Pakistan and Afghanistan.

That would be an indication that the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, despite divergences galore, can still generate meaningful — and potentially life-saving — outcomes.


Michael Kugelman is deputy director of the Asia Program and senior South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. Raoof Hasan is chief executive of the Regional Peace Institute in Islamabad, Pakistan.

Image: Defense Department/D. Myles Cullen