ONCE inside Pakistan, the message was more positive and one that focused, at least publicly, on “strengthening bilateral relations” and “working with Pakistan to achieve peace and stability in Afghanistan” and with India. But the damage had already been done outside Pakistan. US National Security Adviser retired Lt-Gen H.R. McMaster appears to have committed a classic beginner’s error when it comes to addressing the region. Or perhaps the administration of President Donald Trump, keen to sound tough, has made an early mistake. Either way, giving a media interview in Kabul and using that platform to, effectively, verbally attack Pakistan was an unnecessary move by Mr McMaster. It is worth recalling the crux of what he said: “We have hoped that Pakistani leaders will understand that it is in their interest to go after these [militant] groups less selectively … and the best way to pursue their interest in Afghanistan and elsewhere is … not through the use of proxies that engage in violence.” Translation: Pakistan is using militant proxies against Afghanistan and India.
Unsurprisingly, the Pakistani state hit back at the allegations and it appears the mood in GHQ is particularly sour after the American lecture. The attempts to speak more positively about Pakistan once inside the country by Mr McMaster amounted to damage control that may not have had much immediate effect. Confusing, contradictory messaging appears to have become an early Trump administration hallmark in a range of areas and, as in those other areas, it is not clear how they help further America’s interest or its relations with allies. To be sure, the Pak-Afghan relationship is a complex one, with both sides having legitimate grievances against the other. To speak of one side’s concerns and not the other’s is remarkable. To pour fuel on fire by alluding, while in Kabul, to alleged Pakistani militant proxies against India is staggering. If Gen McMaster does want to strengthen bilateral ties between Pakistan and the US, he has stumbled into a formula to achieve exactly the opposite.
Consider what the US has done on and in Afghanistan of late. After announcing an early boycott of the Moscow conference, the run-up to the conference was overshadowed by the ‘mother of all bombs’. The bomb may have targeted the militant Islamic State group, but it also opened new fissures in Kabul and split the government on ties with the US. Somehow, when IS is the one problem that unites virtually all national, regional and international powers involved in Afghanistan — from Pakistan to Afghanistan; from the US to the Afghan Taliban themselves; and from Russia to China — the US has found a way to attack IS in a way that has alarmed everyone else. The bomb underlined America’s military strength and major regional role; Mr McMaster’s comments hint at an ongoing, and worrying, lack of clarity in Washington.
Published in Dawn, April 20th, 2017