US desire to win Afghan war increases pressure on Pakistan

Published August 7, 2017
US President Donald Trump delivers remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington. —Reuters/File
US President Donald Trump delivers remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington. —Reuters/File

WASHINGTON: The new emphasis in Washington on the need for Pakistan to do more against militants is linked to the Trump administration’s desire to win the Afghan war.

Usually on weekends the United States media focuses on human interest stories, but this weekend there are almost a dozen reports explaining how the administration wants to win the war.

In interviews to media outlets, current and former US officials talked about how President Donald Trump was “deeply frustrated” with the lack of options to win the 16-year-old war.

In official and unofficial explanations for this stalemate, Pakistan is almost always blamed for preventing the US from winning the war.

The argument is that the militants flee to Pakistan whenever they come under attack in Afghanistan, recuperate, rearm and then return to Afghanistan to fight US and Afghan forces. They also argue that the war can be won if Pakistan stops the militants from doing so.

On this issue, there appears a rare consensus within the Trump team and between the administration and Congress: Pakistan must stop the alleged cross-border attacks into Afghanistan or face the consequences.

Both the administration and the Congress also ignore Pakistan’s strong denial of these allegations.

Islamabad not only rejects these claims as incorrect, but also points out that Pakistan is the biggest victim of terrorism.

The first warning of the changing mood in Washington came from Congress where the House of Representatives adopted three consecutive resolutions late last month, conditioning hundreds of millions of reimbursements to Pakistan taking action against the Afghan Haqqani network and other militants.

Then last week, the US Senate joined the house in urging the administration to use a carrot-and-stick policy to persuade Pakistan to act against the alleged militant safe havens in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

On Saturday, US National Security Adviser Gen H.R. McMaster said in a radio show that President Trump was also frustrated with this situation and wanted Pakistan to stop its allegedly “paradoxical” policies of fighting the militants within its borders but allowing them to operate across the border.

Fresh appointments

Recent changes in the White House are likely to further increase the pressure on Pakistan. The White House national security team is already headed by a general, McMaster, who has served in Afghanistan and shares the dominant view in Washington that Pakistan’s reluctance to deal with the Afghan Taliban prevents the US from winning the war.

And now he has a boss who also shares this view: the new White House chief of staff John Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general sworn in last Monday.

Commenting on his appointment last week, a US newspaper noted that Gen Kelly was not only a respected veteran of the Persian Gulf and Iraq wars, he “also knows the personal losses of war all too well — his own son — 1st Lt Robert Kelly — was killed in Afghanistan in 2010”.

In one of his first statements, Mr Kelly assured Mr McMaster, a serving general, that he would have a free hand to make the new Afghan policy. While he has been brought in to instil discipline in a White House plagued by leaks and infighting, reports in the US media suggest that he would also strongly support efforts to win the Afghan war.

Since he enjoys a strong backing of his boss, President Trump, he will face little hindrance. In a tweet last Friday, Mr Trump called Gen Kelly “a true star of my administration… a great American and a great leader”.

Published in Dawn, August 7th, 2017

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