THE National Assembly, the government and the COAS have categorically rejected President Trump’s allegations against Pakistan. The furious outrage of the political and military elite in Pakistan brings to mind Hamlet’s mother who said “the lady doth protest too much, methinks” which questions the credibility of overreactions. The reaction in Pakistan obscures the fact that none of Trump’s charges against Pakistan are new and none of Pakistan’s denials are entirely convincing — even among Pakistanis. The first sensible reaction has been from Pakistan’s much maligned diplomatic envoys who reportedly “urged the government to avoid any knee-jerk reactions and prefer diplomacy to confrontation”.
It is true the US has not provided evidence of alleged Pakistani assistance to the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. The border is porous, people flow back and forth, and complete border control is impossible. Building border fences unilaterally will exacerbate rather than alleviate tensions. Moreover, there are legitimate Pakistani contacts with “the political wings” of the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network apparently to urge them to come to the negotiating table for a peace settlement with Kabul. However, this is a scenario in which games can be played — and are played.
Pakistan’s reaction does not take into account that a frustrated Trump, whose presidency hangs in the balance, may be looking for a “splendid little war” to divert domestic attention from his dismal and embarrassing performance at home and whip up support for ‘the chief slaying monsters abroad.’ North Korea is not on the menu because China would intervene in any American assault. It is less clear what China’s reaction would be to another Abbottabad-like assault on targets in Pakistan beyond robust denunciation.
Alienating Kabul and relying on the Taliban to provide leverage is demonstrably stupid.
Trump’s generals in Washington and Afghanistan approved his warnings to Pakistan and his authorising them to take any action they think appropriate without seeking his further approval. These are likely to be drone attacks and ‘black ops’ by special forces who do not require access to air or ground routes in Pakistan. The generals saw the reaction of Pakistan to the raid on Abbottabad in May 2011 and are not likely to be deterred from similar or escalated action again. Given the professional advice of Pakistan’s diplomats, it is not clear what the foreign minister meant by a “paradigm shift” in foreign policy.
The BRICS statement referred to four extremist organisations located in Pakistan as threats to regional security. They are on the UN terrorist list and are banned but active in Pakistan. Given Trump’s statement, the China-India disengagement from Doklam, and the Xi-Modi meeting on the sidelines of the Xiamen summit there is a worrying query: is China gently but publicly pressing Pakistan to take down organisations on its territory who have links with insurgents on Chinese territory? If Pakistan is silly enough to ignore this message it will progressively upset China and sow doubts in Chinese minds about their strategic partnership with Pakistan. This would inevitably impact CPEC. If this happens Pakistan will have kicked itself in the face again!
A central failing of Pakistan’s regional strategy is its failure to generate Afghan trust in its policies and in allowing America and the Arabs to complicate its relations with neighbouring Iran. This has facilitated the growth of Indian political influence in both countries. The opportunities presented by President Ashraf Ghani’s visit to Rawalpindi in November 2014 after he became president have been wasted. The same mistake was made with former president Hamid Karzai who spoke of the two countries as “conjoined twins”. But instead of learning from failed policies, self-serving narratives were constructed to demonise Afghan leaders as Indian puppets. These blunders have cost Pakistan dearly. What is required in Afghanistan is not a continued American military presence but Pakistan’s unqualified support for Kabul’s search for a broad-based political settlement. An unstable Afghanistan will inevitably negate all the gains claimed for the various counterterrorism operations inside Pakistan.
The US war on terror in Afghanistan has been an abject failure due to arrogant militarism and political ignorance. The recent blasphemous leaflets showered upon Afghans about the Taliban demonstrate an incorrigible American disdain. US allegations against Pakistan are motivated by frustration. But Pakistan’s policies in Afghanistan have also been counterproductive. Alienating Kabul and relying on the Taliban to provide leverage is demonstrably stupid. Pakistan’s policy has also been unnecessarily India-centric. This alienates Afghan political opinion and ensures that Pakistan will lose zero-sum games with India inside Afghanistan. Afghan goodwill for India will not translate into ill will towards Pakistan unless its policies are seen by Afghans as forcing upon them an unwanted choice between India and Pakistan. We need to have more confidence in our natural links with Afghanistan.
Accordingly, Pakistan’s regional priorities should include (i) developing longer-term strategic coordination and regional crisis management with China; (ii) rebuilding trust with Kabul by convincing it that Pakistan will have no truck with organisations that take up arms against it; (iii) avoiding ill-considered and self-defeating Afghan policies that confound Chinese strategic calculations; (iv) developing a predictable, substantial, mutually beneficial if non-strategic relationship with the US to minimise negative policy fallout; and (v) maintaining its principled stance on the Kashmir dispute, while focusing on a dialogue with India that (a) helps to alleviate the unspeakable human rights situation in the Valley and (b) builds on the tentative ‘understandings’ reached in the 2005-6 back-channel talks through confidence-building measures and agreed modalities for APHC and other independent Kashmiri participation in a settlement process. This is neither easy nor impossible. A reliable bilateral relationship with Iran is also a priority.
Such an integrated approach could progressively limit India’s ability to use Afghanistan against Pakistan; improve Pakistan’s image in Afghanistan and Iran enabling its views to elicit sympathy and understanding; and reduce US suspicion and Indian hostility. This will require strong leadership; policy realism and imagination; a well-resourced and influential foreign service; and an intellectually active foreign policy community. These priorities will need to be embedded in a national transformation process. Correcting a dysfunctional Afghanistan and regional policy requires holistic change, yes, a ‘paradigm shift’.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, India and China and head of UN missions in Iraq and Sudan.
Published in Dawn, September 9th, 2017