PAKISTAN is living through trying times. It confronts simultaneous threats from India and the US. The Trump administration has decided to coerce Pakistan’s compliance with its demands to ‘eliminate’ the alleged Afghan Taliban safe havens in Pakistan. Puffed up by the US endorsement of its regional ambitions, revelling in the Pakistan-US tensions, and unable to suppress the latest popular revolt in occupied Kashmir, India has intensified its political and military pressure on Pakistan. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s domestic politics are in turmoil and the nation virtually leaderless to face the twin external challenges.
The threat from India is grave and existential. India says its daily violations of the Line of Control (LoC) are meant to ‘punish’ Pakistan for its support to the Kashmiris. Besides India’s loose talk of ‘surgical strikes’, ‘limited war’ and a ‘Cold Start’ attack, the Indian air chief has asserted that he could ‘identify and destroy’ Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and the Indian army chief has expressed readiness to attack across the border and ‘call Pakistan nuclear bluff’. These irresponsible threats deserve global denunciation.
Pakistan must clearly convey to India that any military adventure will result in a conflict with disastrous consequences. Pakistan should also advise the Security Council and all major powers of the dangers inherent in the Indian ceasefire violations and military threats. It could propose the enhanced presence of UN Observers on both sides of the LoC. In particular, Islamabad should caution the US against encouraging such dangerous Indian belligerence.
Pakistan can afford to display greater flexibility towards the US rather than India.
Indian pressure will not be relieved by one-sided Pakistani concessions on Kashmir or other issues. Apart from possibly compromising Pakistan’s vital interests, any sign of weakness on Pakistan’s part will, as history attests, further intensify Indian rhetoric and pressure.
In comparison, the US pressure on Taliban/Haqqani ‘safe havens’ — though misguided — has limited strategic implications for Pakistan in the long term. Whatever the outcome of the new US strategy of enhanced force, sooner or later, the Americans will have to leave Afghanistan. Minus the foreign presence, geography and the ethnic composition of Afghanistan’s population will ensure Pakistan’s influence in that country.
Thus, to break the nexus between US and Indian pressure, Pakistan can afford to display greater flexibility towards the US rather than India. New Delhi’s objectives are strategic and permanent; the US demands on Afghanistan — no matter how misguided, and whether it wins or loses — will be ultimately temporary in nature.
Indeed, if Pakistan’s leaders had acted with alacrity and clarity at the inception of the Trump administration, a broad understanding on mutual cooperation in Afghanistan could have been evolved with the US. Even now, Pakistan should try to secure agreement on a broad framework of Pakistan-US cooperation on Afghanistan, including the following elements:
— full Pakistan-US cooperation against the militant Islamic State group and its associates (similar to past cooperation against Al Qaeda);
— a negotiated political solution to the conflict between Kabul and the Afghan Taliban;
— action by the US-led coalition to eliminate the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)/Jamaatul Ahrar (JuA) and Balochistan Liberation Army safe havens in Afghanistan; and
— respect for Pakistan’s sovereignty and its legitimate interests in Afghanistan.
The core issue of contention between Pakistan and the US — the alleged Afghan Taliban safe havens in Pakistan — needs to be addressed openly and boldly. There are sound reasons why Pakistan finds it difficult to accommodate America’s demand that it act against (capture or kill) Afghan Taliban, particularly the Haqqani network leaders. First, it is unclear as to what is meant by ‘safe havens’: insurgent staging posts, training camps, or a mere personal presence, such as in Afghan refugee camps?
Second, elimination of Taliban leaders will remove the very people with whom peace needs to be negotiated. A leaderless insurgency cannot conclude a peace agreement (as revealed in Syria and Libya).
Third, Pakistani action against the Taliban leaders will bring the Afghan civil war to Pakistan’s soil. A nexus between the TTP/JuA and the Afghan Taliban would be disastrous for Pakistan. In any case, only a few Taliban leaders may be eliminated by Pakistanis actions. Corruption, drugs trade and Afghan infighting impinge more seriously on the security environment in Afghanistan.
The Pakistan authorities, however, appear to be acting in a policy vacuum. The foreign ministry’s recent announcement that 27 members of the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani group had been ‘handed over’ to Kabul was inconsistent with its policy stance. Such contradictory postures may create the worst of both worlds for Pakistan: they will not appease the US; but could evoke the hostility of the Afghan Taliban.
Similarly, Islamabad naively played into Afghan propaganda by receiving its NDA chief and interior minister who came to complain about Pakistan’s ‘complicity’ in the recent Kabul attacks without offering a shred of evidence for their outlandish allegations.
The best way to avoid a confrontation with the US is for Pakistan to persuade the Afghan Taliban to join negotiations for a peaceful settlement. Despite Trump’s statements, US officials reportedly have assured that that they want talks with the Taliban. For their part, by participating in such talks, the Taliban would secure a legitimate political status as a negotiating partner. Such talks could be pursued in more than one format and bring Russia, Iran and Turkey into the process.
Despite Pakistan’s best endeavours, and sensing its confusion and weakness, the US may feel emboldened to take further coercive steps against Pakistan including political and economic sanctions and unilateral drone strikes and special operations on Pakistan’s territory. Pakistan should be ready to respond to such steps.
While making tactical compromises, Pakistan’s strategic aim must be to secure, eventually, the full withdrawal of US-Nato forces from Afghanistan, given the Indo-US strategic partnership and the imputed threats to CPEC and Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities.
As Sun Tzu wrote in the Art of War: “Invincibility lies in the defence.” Pakistan’s strategic aims, both in the east and the west, are defensive. Although Pakistan may be militarily weaker than the US or India, its nuclear weapons capabilities provide a guarantee against external coercion and aggression.
The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.
Published in Dawn, February 4th, 2018