A NEW twist of events may scuttle President Donald Trump’s strategy for ending the longest war in US history. By suspending nearly all military assistance to Pakistan, Trump has literally taken a gamble in what the entire world views as a complex conflict in Afghanistan.
In a tweet that reflected unwanted diplomatic brinkmanship, he assailed Pakistan for fooling the US for years and giving the Americans nothing but lies and deceit in return for $33 billion in military and development assistance over the past one and a half decade.
As for the aid figure he received from the Congressional Research Service, it is factually erroneous. The agency documents allocated aid, not the funds actually dispersed.
His tempestuous post has warmed the cockles of Kabul officialdom’s heart. They have long been urging the US to coerce Pakistan into honouring its commitments to cracking down on militants, who are attacking military and civilian targets in Afghanistan. For obvious reasons, they are euphoric about the denial of more than a billion dollars in US aid to Pakistan.
Restrictions on Pakistan won’t halt attacks in Afghanistan.
Unable to deal with security, economic and political challenges on the domestic front, the Afghan government wants the US to play hardball with Pakistan over the issue of terrorism. But they tend to lose sight of the patent reality that pressure tactics, including the aid freeze, will in no way contribute to stabilising Afghanistan.
Trump’s decision stands in sharp contradiction to his characterisation of Pakistan as a key ally in the campaign against militant outfits, notably in Afghanistan. Despite an uptick in air strikes by US-led coalition and Afghan forces, the Taliban and the militant Islamic State group continue to make territorial gains and stage high-profile attacks.
Last week’s deadly assault in Kabul is a case in point. At least 20 policemen and civilians lost their lives in the massive suicide bombing, reportedly claimed by the IS, which left 27 people wounded.
With the suspension of security assistance, Washington has upped the ante in bullying Islamabad to change its policy towards Kabul. The move, however, does not seem to take into consideration Pakistan’s crucial role in achieving a political settlement in the war-torn neighbour.
In fact, an arm-twisting approach risks escalating tensions and impeding peace efforts. Over the past 17 years, strong-arm tactics have only led to mistrust — something that has torpedoed efforts at eradicating terrorism. With this in mind, the Trump administration should resist calls for imposing more restrictions on Pakistan.
A tit-for-tat response from Pakistan — closing supply lines for Nato troops and blocking its airspace for the Americans — will ramp up the cost of the war. Although the US is trying to build flexibility into the ground lines of communications to avoid overreliance on a single option, Pakistan remains critical to the delivery of supplies to the 14,000 US forces based in Afghanistan.
Washington’s confrontationist posture has only added to the complexity of political stand-off with Islamabad over its new policy that was rolled out in August 2017. Subsequent visits to Islamabad by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defence Secretary Jim Mattis failed to win Pakistan’s support for the military mission across the border.
If American claims about the presence of Afghan Taliban and Haqqani leaders in Pakistan are true, Islamabad can nudge the militants to the negotiating table. For peace talks to resume, the US should shun counterproductive measures that can harm its rollercoaster relationship with Islamabad.
Unconvinced by Pakistan’s narrative, the US military may step up drone strikes against rebel networks in the tribal region. Such raids, however, could result in collateral damage and denunciation of the Trump administration from human rights watchdogs.
For a reality check, Trump should take a look at the Global Terrorism Index report, which notes a marked decline in terrorism in Pakistan since 2014. The fall is essentially linked to military operations in the tribal belt.
Barack Obama had also withheld millions of dollars in military aid to Pakistan in 2011 and 2016 — a plan that fizzled out. Having already experienced many US aid cuts in previous years, Pakistan will manage to ride out the present crisis. But it should not rule out even harsher actions from an American president known for his hair-trigger temper.
As things stand, America must accept the fact it is losing the war in Afghanistan —and allies around the globe. Surprisingly, Trump is spoiling for a fight with North Korea and Iran at a time when the Afghan Taliban are on the march and the Ghani government is on the retreat.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Peshawar.
Published in Dawn, January 11th, 2018