The US President Trump’s declaration of a so called new policy about Afghanistan is getting mixed reactions from all over the world. He – without mincing words – declared that Taliban resurgent is only possible because of Pakistan, while conveniently forgetting Russia, Iran and China, who are helping Taliban to tackle the ISIS. His tone was not very different than President Bush’s tone when he had his “axis of evil” speech in 2001. Some analyst and retired Generals in Pakistan are insisting that President Trump wants to find the escape goat for their failure in Afghanistan so he chose Pakistan. The speech raises several questions. Is the policy which President Trump announced, a new policy? Is Pakistan really a solution of the problems? What message is given to India and the Afghanistan? Why only Pakistan was blamed for all the failures in Afghanistan? How much this policy would affect Pakistan? What the US can do to force Pakistan to deliver? Is this strategy a declaration of war against Pakistan with India’s assistance? Finally, can one see the speech as — in Dr. Graham Allison’s words — the “Thucydides trap”?
Although, the Trump administration insists that his speech is a “new Afghan policy, however, in 2009, President Obama remarked very similar view when he put forwarded the so called New Strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. President Obama noted, “So let me be clear: al Qaeda and its allies – the terrorists who planned and supported the 9/11 attacks – are in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Multiple intelligence estimates have warned that al Qaeda is actively planning attacks on the U.S. homeland from its safe-haven in Pakistan. And if the Afghan government falls to the Taliban – or allows al Qaeda to go unchallenged – that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can. The future of Afghanistan is inextricably linked to the future of its neighbor, Pakistan. In the nearly eight years since 9/11, al Qaeda and its extremist allies have moved across the border to the remote areas of the Pakistani frontier. For the American people, this border region has become the most dangerous place in the world”.
For long time, successive US administrations and the Washington based Think Tanks are divided on the policy towards Pakistan. Some believe that Pakistan’s threat perception towards India is real and Pakistan would not relinquish its support for the Taliban until its security paranoia is addressed. So if the US would help settle their issue vis-à-vis India by pressuring India for the peaceful dialogs with Pakistan on Kashmir and other issues, Pakistan would come out with open support. This argument was discussed in detail by Stephen Hadley, former US National Security Advisor, in his article, co-authored by Dr. Moeed Yusuf, Associate Vice President, South Asia Program at US Institute of Peace, in New York Times and then in Washington Post. However, the other group believes that Pakistan’s threat perception about India is exaggerated and if US would simply twist Pakistan’s arms, it would deliver. Dr. Moeed Yusuf and Ejaz Haider, a journalist and public intellectual based in Pakistan, argue – and rightly so — that it’s Pakistan who should decide about its threat perceptions – just like India had its security paranoia before 1971 when East Pakistan was part of Pakistan – not the US or any other country in the world. President Obama and now President Trump, sides with the second point of view. One reason is that due to larger weight of India, its market and economy, the US is reluctant to pressure India, who is ready to assist US in US policy of containment of China as well.
The second point of view about Pakistan is further strengthen when the situation on the ground is observed. Initially, Pakistan denies the existence of Taliban and Al-Qaida leaders’ presence in Pakistan. However, it was found out that Taliban supreme leader Mullah Umar died in Pakistani hospital. Al-Qaida’s supreme leader Osama Bin Laden was found hidden and later killed by the US elite force in Pakistan. Just year ago Mullah Akhter Mansur, the new Tehreek-Taliban in Pakistan was killed in the US drone attack inside Pakistan. Pakistan security establishment – which controls Pakistan foreign and defense policies to large extent – agree that top Taliban leaders are living in Baluchistan province of Pakistan. They insisted that they have leverage over the Taliban and they can make them engage in the peace talks with Afghanistan elected government. When Pakistan’s former Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif spoke in the US Institute of Peace in October 2016, he said that Pakistan cannot deliver the peace dialogs if the world would insist Pakistan to fight and eliminate Taliban leadership hiding in Pakistan. However, after Pakistan could be able to get some junior Taliban leaders to sit with Afghan government to initiate the peace process, the dialog broke after the first meeting when the death of Mullah Umar was leaked by the Afghan Intelligence. Now, the policy makers in US question that if Pakistan cannot make Taliban to engage in constructive dialogs with Afghan government, and Pakistan is not helping the US in engaging tactically with Taliban so what is the significance of Pakistan in the war, and that attitude of Pakistan simply makes Pakistan a part of problem instead of part of solution.
India and Afghanistan have long history of bilateral relations, only, during the Taliban regime, these relations were completely dormant. However, India helped US led coalition forces to overthrow Taliban from power and became the largest regional provider of humanitarian and reconstruction aid to Afghanistan. Indians are working in various construction projects, as part of India‘s rebuilding efforts in Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s Ambassador to India, Mr. Shaida Mohammad Abdali, recently pointed out that India “is the biggest regional donor to Afghanistan and fifth largest donor globally with over $3 billion in assistance. India has built over 200 public and private schools, sponsors over a 1000 scholarships, hosts over 16,000 Afghan students. President Trump, although, announced that India has to play a role – which pretty much India is playing for two decade – but asked India to pledge more money in development of Afghanistan. President Trump also announced that the US engagement in Afghanistan will be limited to “killing terrorists” and training Afghan troops, not the nation building.
Political analysts and commentators in Pakistan are raising the question that why only Pakistan was blamed when it is well known that Russia and Iran are supporting Taliban and even arming them. Also, is the breakdown of relationship at all government’s levels with Pakistan while praising Pakistan’s arch-rival India in the same breath, an announcement by the US administration to declare a war against Pakistan? According to US media, Iran and Russia have stepped up their efforts to challenge US in Afghanistan. The American and Afghan officials confess that their efforts – besides dealing ISIS — are to weakening the US backed Afghan government. General John Nicholson, a general in charge of US forces in Afghanistan confirmed that Russia is sending weapons to the Taliban. General Nicholson confessed that the Russian intervention would further complicate the 16-year-old war in Afghanistan and the Russia’s relations with the United States. “We continue to get reports of this assistance,” Nicholson said, speaking to reporters alongside Defense Secretary James Mattis. “We support anyone who wants to help us advance the reconciliation process, but anyone who arms belligerents who perpetuate attacks like the one we saw two days ago in Mazar-e Sharif is not the best way forward to a peaceful reconciliation.”
Some analysts attached another question about the definition of victory. Political pundits ask what less than 20,000 troops could achieve which over 100,000 troops could not achieve in 16 years? One answer could be that the US administration would like to find a scape goat for its failure in Afghanistan, but then why Pakistan only, not Russia, Iran and even China. Is that because Pakistan’s Achilles heel – military control over civilian institutions and Judiciary which was very open during last four years – is exposed and Pakistan can easily be pushed; or it is not victory in Afghanistan which is important but containment of China — who is expanding its fleet and creating an access to Arabian Sea at the gateway of Hurmuz to monitor the movements – is the goal. Thucydides, an Athenian historian and general during the 5th century BC, wrote the history of Peloponnesian wars, writes in his book, History of the Peloponnesian War, “By all means, keep anyone else from having a fleet if possible otherwise pick a strongest as your friend”. With the new policy, in which the US administration is using Afghanistan as an excuse to send its drones deep inside Pakistan and monitor the activities of China inside Pakistan. After President Trump’s speech, Chinese government twice defended Pakistan position and warned US to accept all the sacrifices by Pakistan. That shows China’s nervousness on this new policy. The US administration believes that India should have a significant role in assisting US to assure that China would not be able to achieve its goals in the region.
Now, does the US pressure would force Pakistan to move away from the status quo? The US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned that the US funding for Pakistan could be cut if the government doesn’t cooperate with the president’s strategy in Afghanistan. “Obviously, we have some leverage that’s been discussed in terms of the amount of aid and military assistance we give them, their status as a non-NATO alliance partner,” Tillerson told reporters. “All of that can be put on the table.” The question is, would all the threats by the US administration impress Pakistan? The history of last decade shows that the US leverage on Pakistan was severely eroded during Obama administration. The US assistance to Pakistan comes into three categories: economic aid, which includes funding to support agriculture, energy, health sectors and the humanitarian aid. The security aid, which includes counterterrorism, military education, money to assist with purchase U.S. military equipment, and transfers of excess military gear and funding to help the country pay for the cost of counter-terrorism operations. In 2011, the total aid had peaked to $3.5 billion but during Obama administration, the Congress steadily cut down the aid and by 2016, it’s less than a billion dollar annually. In July 2016, the Trump administration suspended another $300 million in aid, originally obligated to reimburse Pakistan for counterterrorism operations near the Afghan border. The money was part of the $800 million Coalition Support Fund (CSF), which, since 2002 has reimbursed Pakistan to the tune of $14 billion. Washington also cut arms supplies, but Pakistan had managed by turning to China and other parties. In June 2016, two US lawmakers introduced a bipartisan bill that revoked Pakistan’s status as what’s known as a “Major Non-NATO Ally,” a legal status that confers certain benefits, such as the transfer of excess defense equipment from the US military. However, those familiar with arms transfers done under such status said that revoking it, would have — to large extent — a symbolic effect. In late 2011, after US forces bombed Pakistani troops in Salala, inside Pakistan – which the US claims was a mistake — Islamabad responded by shutting down border crossings along a critical ground route (GLOC) that NATO used for resupply, connecting the port in Karachi and Afghanistan for seven months. That costed NATO about $100 million a month in extra transportation costs. According to Sameer Lalwani, deputy director of the South Asia program at The Stimson Center, that when confronted by Washington in the past, “Pakistan hasn’t blinked.”
The US has leverage on Pakistan because it can influence the international financial institution like International Monitory Fund (IMF) and the Western investors, which Pakistan is trying its best to engage. However, so far the investments from West are barely contributing Pakistan’s economy significantly.
Is the new policy a declaration of war? What is the definition of victory, how President Trump would define the success? Is it the intellectual bankruptcy of Trump admiration, where the State Department has vacant positions and there is no special envoy to deal with Afghanistan? What the US would achieve with less than 20,000 troops which it could not achieve with over 100,000 troops? Has the surge gives only has symbolical value just to tell Taliban that the US is there to stay and to indirectly pressurize Taliban to sit with Afghan government to negotiate? Why the Secretary of State confessed that there is no military solution just the day after Trump’s speech? Coming days and months would answer all these questions.
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