Pakistan’s turbulent and often fractious relationship with the United States has traditionally been underpinned by an awareness of the symbiotic nature of the partnership. This was thrown into stark relief after September 11, 2001, when Pakistan once again became a frontline state to channelise American actions in Afghanistan.
But the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States has thrown the delicate balance awry and policy makers from both sides have been struggling to restore the scales. Things did not get off to a good start given that our erstwhile prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, tried to leverage his congratulatory call to the newly-minted American President for domestic political advantage.
Pakistan’s lack of a foreign minister also did not help in the subsequent days. The ad hoc foreign policy adviser Tariq Fatemi wandered around Washington aimlessly, trying in vain to set up a meeting with Trump’s inner circle.
But matters came to a head when Trump announced his policy for Afghanistan and South Asia in August. “My original instinct was to pull out – and, historically, I like following my instincts,” the president said. But he had harsh words for Pakistan, coupled with giving India a greater, albeit non-military, role in Afghanistan. This should have come as no surprise to Pakistan, given that during the vitriolic run-up to the Presidency, Trump had talked about letting the largest regional democracies ‘patrol’ their own areas, with specific reference to South Asia and India.
Trump’s generals, turned policy-makers, who served in Afghanistan, as well as Cabinet advisers, intervened and Trump eventually outlined a policy that repeatedly slammed Pakistan and rewarded India. His words and their juxtaposition are important.
Pakistan’s turbulent and often fractious relationship with the United States has traditionally been underpinned by an awareness of the symbiotic nature of the partnership
“We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond. Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan. It has much to lose by continuing to harbor criminals and terrorists,” he said.
“But Pakistan has also sheltered the same organizations that try every single day to kill our people. We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting. But that will have to change, and that will change immediately. No partnership can survive a country’s harboring of militants and terrorists who target U.S. service members and officials. It is time for Pakistan to demonstrate its commitment to civilization, order, and to peace,” he said.
Praising India as the world’s largest democracy, he said: “India makes billions of dollars in trade with the United States, and we want them to help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development.”
For an American President to be woefully unaware of the dynamics of South Asia, the stated aims of India’s Hindu extremist government, the brutal human rights violations in Indian-occupied Kashmir, the fomenting of terrorism in Pakistan by serving Indian military officers and New Delhi’s historic hegemonistic design, is cause for alarm.
Sharif’s dismissal as prime minister has inadvertently served Pakistan’s Foreign Office. With Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi at the helm and a re-constituted Cabinet, it’s now up to full-time Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif and new Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal, to recalibrate the relationship.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been cast as the carrot and is expected to visit Pakistan in October, while US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is to wield the stick of sanctions, a potential uptick in drone strikes and the threat of removing Pakistan’s status as a major non-NATO ally.
The American demands are not new, but they are certainly being pushed in a threatening manner. And this is likely to prove counter-productive. Pakistan is already struggling with a severe internal security threat, that rocks the country to its core when a shrine is bombed or members of our minorities killed. The country is coping with growing radicalisation and domestic political turbulence.
Enter President Trump and his habit of trying to bludgeon his way through the morass. By blatantly telling New Delhi to invest in Afghanistan, he is tampering with the precarious balance of power in the region. Pakistan faces continuing Indian military attacks on its eastern border, terrorist organisations operating internally, and will now have to watch its western flank.
How then does Washington expect Pakistan to open another front against terror organisations that move at will across the still porous Pak-Afghan border? The Pakistan Army has already conducted multiple military operations across the logistically formidable tribal areas of Pakistan and is expanding its operations.
Instead of inviting India into Afghanistan, President Trump should consider adding a greater presence of Afghan and American troops along the border to prevent cross border movement of terror groups, including the Haqqani Network, into Afghanistan and Afghanistan-based terror groups, like the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, attacking Pakistani town and cities. Pakistan has far more troops on its side of the border, which is not matched on the other side.
For an American President to be woefully unaware of the dynamics of South Asia is cause for alarm
President Trump has proved his ability to act recklessly and impetuously, without focusing on nuanced positions, let alone the shifting sands of tribal loyalties. Pakistan stands in as much danger as US forces in Afghanistan, if Pakistan is weakened economically and diplomatically.
But if the American president’s men think they can trump Pakistan, they may want to keep in mind that Pakistan has a few aces up its sleeve.
The most obvious stick Pakistan can wield is to withdraw consent for the US military to use Pakistan as a staging route to supply forces in Afghanistan. This would not be Islamabad’s first choice, but any American sanctions, or an increase in drone strikes, would certainly increase the pressure on the government to block NATO supply lines.
Pakistan’s fiery opposition parties, including the Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) would vociferously and aggressively protest against any bowing from the government to American pressure. Given that the PTI rules the strategically important province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the Federal government would not be alone in calling the shots. The PTI is also bitterly opposed to drone strikes.
In a wider perspective, Washington is keenly aware of growing Chinese economic influence in Pakistan. Beijing has invested heavily in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as well as the vision of the One Belt, One Road (OBOR). These strategies came into play years before President Trump took oath of office. Beijing will protect its interests and will not accept the disruption of the balance of power in South Asia.
American aggressiveness will not drive Pakistan into China’s arms. Pakistan is already there. What it will do is push China into the playing field on multiple fronts. No one seems to have calculated the cost of Chinese military involvement in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It would add another layer of imbalance in an already unstable environment.
It is in the interests of both the United States and Pakistan to step back from the edge and start repairing the frayed relationship. Washington would be advised to curtail Indian movement in Afghanistan to avoid pulling China into the fray. Right now, Islamabad would like to work with the new US administration as it evolves its policy in the region.
It is in the interests of both the United States and Pakistan to step back from the edge and start repairing the frayed relationship
Pakistan is vulnerable to American pressure, especially given its debt crisis and dependency on the World Bank, but will not let the US trample all over it. Sanctions under the Pressler Amendment yielded few results in the past. Today, Washington would ironically have to declare Pakistan a terrorist state to justify sanctions.
The best way forward would be for the United States and Pakistan to once again establish a rapport and work together. Pakistan should be receptive to American requests, but will cavil at American demands. The domestic political climate also precludes buckling at American threats.
Washington needs to dial down its lambasting of Pakistan and force the Afghans to take responsibility for their own problems. Any solution to Kabul’s seemingly intractable crises will emerge with help from Islamabad and not New Delhi. The US and Pakistan need to cooperate in helping create stability in Afghanistan and eventually reducing the global terrorist footprint.
Balancing the Act
Shah Mehmood Qureshi, former foreign minister
Is it possible to keep up with the rest of the world, while protecting our interests and at the same time maintaining good relations with the United States?
SMQ: It is entirely possible, because the recent policy which President Trump formulated has four core objectives: firstly, contain IS (Daesh) in Pakistan, which we have done by nipping the militant organisation in the bud here. Secondly, President Trump wants Pakistan to ensure that the Taliban has no clout in Afghanistan – and we want that too. We neither want Talibanisation in Pakistan nor in Afghanistan. Thirdly, he wishes to see al-Qaida eliminated. It goes without saying that Pakistan has played a key role in cutting al-Qaeda to size. Not only have we caught the most notorious of leaders, but we have also handed them over to the US. Trump’s fourth objective is that our region has peace and stability, which we want as well. So we share the same objectives as the United States.
The problem is that the US will also have to lend an ear to our viewpoint. When they say that there are safe havens in Pakistan, it implies that they are negating Pakistan’s sincere effort and commitment to eliminate terrorism in the country. In this context, we have built a consensus in the form of the National Action Plan. Under the plan, all institutions are united on how to deal with terrorism. The operations we conducted in various parts of the country have helped us get rid of the terrorists. The success of Operation Rah-e-Rast, four operations of Khyber, Zarb-e-Azb, and the ongoing Radd-ul-Fasaad vindicate our resolve to exterminate the scourge of terror. The world, even General Nicholson, has acknowledged Pakistan’s effort to curb terrorism. Why can’t Trump see the safe havens that exist in Afghanistan? So, don’t point fingers at us – instead, engage in dialogue with us.
What do you think prompted the US to level allegations against Pakistan?
SMQ: We may have had minor failures in our policy but the basic reason for the change in their policy is that they have made India their strategic partner. The US seeks to give India a big role in Afghanistan, which is not acceptable to Pakistan because we have rendered immense sacrifices in the war against terror while India only played the role of a spectator. Also, the US thinks that China is fast emerging as a global economic power in the world. They are finding routes for trade – CPEC is one of them. The US seeks to limit China, and to do that it sees India as its ally.
Has something extraordinary occurred which prompted the US to say what it said on the highest platform?
SMQ: Yes, I can see a change right now. Earlier, we would be criticised by the US Congress, because there is immense alien ingress there. We have lagged behind in that respect; we couldn’t do things we should have done. But that shortcoming used to be offset by the executive branch of the government. For example, the Pressler Amendment was carried out by the US Congress, but the executive had the power to overrule it, and it kept using that power every now and then. But now a change has come about. It is for the first time that the US Congress, the US State Department, the Pentagon, and the White House are on the same page. But now under the new amendment, the executive cannot give the waiver it used to in the past. So, this is a qualitative change that I am observing.
The shift in US policy also gives rise to new dangers and misgivings for Pakistan. What kinds of perils are you seeing for Pakistan in the near future?
SMQ: The biggest danger can be of ‘hot pursuit’ and ‘boots on the ground’ – and this is a clear red line. I think they have crossed this red line by giving India a role in Afghanistan, which has never been acceptable to Pakistan, nor will it ever be. India and Afghanistan are independent countries and have their own strategies. They can do trade and be good friends, no objections, but if India uses Afghan land against Pakistan, which is happening at the moment, then this will add to the tension in the region. We should assess this changing situation and see how we have to safeguard our interests.
Our policymakers say that America wants to pit Pakistan against the Afghan Taliban. Do you think it should happen or is there a need to stay away from that fire, as it were?
SMQ: This is essentially Afghanistan’s problem and it has to be resolved in Afghanistan as well. So, you should fight the Afghanistan war in Afghanistan; why do you want to fight in Pakistan? We are ready to cooperate with you, and we have cooperated with you. We gave you air and land routes; we lent you complete logistical support; we deployed our more than two hundred thousand troops on the western border, despite knowing the dangers on the eastern border. But despite all this, America did not support us the way it should have.