PRESIDENT Donald Trump has accused Pakistan of giving “safe haven to agents of chaos, violence and terror”. His new Afghan strategy will “change the approach in how to deal with Pakistan”. He warned no partnership with Pakistan could survive its “harbouring of militants and terrorists who target US service members and officials”. Trump added “it is time for Pakistan to demonstrate its commitment to civilisation, order and to peace”. Pakistan rejects these accusations. But what matters is what it does.
The Trump speech reflected three failed Afghan policies: those of Kabul, the US and Pakistan. The Afghan government has failed to consolidate itself, establish its authority and credibility in the country, and compel or persuade the Afghan Taliban to come to the negotiating table within the parameters of the Afghan constitution and indefinite US military activity in Afghanistan.
The US military invasion, occupation, counter-resistance and its current operation ‘Resolute Support’ have added up to its longest war “without victory”, and without victory in sight. Three American presidents have ‘owned’ the war in Afghanistan: Bush, Obama, and now Trump. In the process, US arrogance, ignorance and power have destroyed another Muslim society with ghastly humanitarian consequences and future stability repercussions that are incalculable. The US has required other countries, especially Pakistan, to ‘do more’ to minimise the consequences and repercussions of its own Afghan policy.
The Trump speech reflected three failed Afghan policies: those of Kabul, the US and Pakistan.
Pakistan has failed to bring any longer-term coherence to its Afghan policy. It alienated the massive Afghan goodwill, built during the Soviet occupation, through self-serving ideological fervour and arrogant short-sightedness which have exacerbated the political confusion and terrorist violence in Afghanistan. It has enabled India to steal a strategic march over it. It has extended a range of ‘deniable’ support to extremist organisations operating in Afghanistan. It wasted an opportunity to build a working relationship with President Ashraf Ghani that could have contained Indian influence in Afghanistan.
As a result, Pakistan has undermined its role as a key peacemaking neighbour and finds itself today at the receiving end of Afghan resentment, Indian hostility and US pressure. It is simply unable or unwilling to rationalise its Afghan policy within a broader and longer-term policy context. Instead, it relies on protestations of innocence and proxies to bring about a ‘friendly’ Afghanistan whose friendship is measured in terms of distancing itself from India. This entails an unnecessary and self-defeating contempt for Afghanistan’s sovereign independence.
In a forest of domestic and foreign policy idiocies Trump made two sensible campaign promises: to improve relations with Russia and to get out of Afghanistan. Since becoming president, and under massive establishment pressure, he has reversed himself on both. The loss of his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has rendered Trump helpless in the face of his assertive generals and hawkish senators who are not prepared to face defeat and strategic humiliation at the hands of the Taliban and their cohorts — whom they see as aided and abetted by Pakistan.
The Afghan government and US policymakers see Taliban resilience as the result of Pakistan’s insistence on a power-sharing arrangement in Kabul. At one time it appeared the US was on board with Pakistan’s strategy if not its tactics. However, Narendra Modi, Ghani and the US establishment have convinced Trump this would be fatal for the Kabul government and for US and Indian strategic interests in an emerging China- and Russia-centric political, economic and security order in Eurasia. The ‘loss’ of Afghanistan could lead to the loss of the Eurasian heartland — and that would be fatal for Trump’s presidency. Pakistan is seen as a villain in this unfolding Greater Game!
Modi played a crucial role in hardening Trump’s stance on Pakistan during his June visit to Washington as an essential first step towards containing China in Central and South Asia and in the Indian Ocean. In the joint statement of June 27, 2017, Trump and Modi “called on Pakistan to ensure that its territory is not used to launch terror attacks on other countries. They further called on Pakistan to expeditiously bring to justice the perpetrators of the 26/11 Mumbai, Pathankot and other cross-border terrorist attacks perpetrated by Pakistan-based groups”.
On Afghanistan, the statement said “the increasing instability, due to terrorism [read Pakistan] in Afghanistan is one of our common concerns” and “in order to attain our objectives for peace and stability in Afghanistan we will maintain close consultation and communication to enhance coordination between our two countries”. Pakistan poses “a threat to the region and beyond”. All this is echoed in Trump’s latest warning to Pakistan.
Interestingly, the US has not yet designated the Taliban as a terrorist organisation. If Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s qualification of some of Trump’s remarks is any guide, the door to negotiations with a militarily weakened Taliban may not be slammed shut. Pakistan is expected to facilitate this weakening of the Taliban as a test of its own reliability. Also interestingly, Trump referred to South Asia “and the broader Indo-Pacific region” in which, as in Afghanistan, the US and India share objectives for peace and security.
The strategic targeting of China is obvious. Indian aggression in Doklam with the US fully backing India against China confirms that Indo-US coordination regarding Pakistan and Afghanistan is part of a much larger theatre of strategic cooperation, competition and confrontation. India is playing for high stakes. Indo-US pressures on Pakistan are set to build. A normally cautious China and Russia have sprung to the defence of Pakistan after Trump’s accusations against Pakistan. The global strategic lines for the 21st century are being drawn.
It is, accordingly, critical for Pakistan to formulate and follow an integrated Afghanistan, India and Kashmir policy. Strategic coordination with China will be essential. China is, incidentally, a better interlocutor for peace and stability in Afghanistan and the region than the US. Finally, a short-sighted India-centric Afghanistan policy will be disastrous for Pakistan-Afghan relations and for the strategic development of Pakistan-China relations. As a weak link in any strategic chain Pakistan will be of no use to anyone.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, India and China and head of UN missions in Iraq and Sudan.
Published in Dawn, August 26th, 2017