On New Year’s Day, President Trump surprised the world by making a major foreign policy statement with respect to Pakistan on Twitter.
It is not that the US or the world did not know that Pakistan has been the nursery of terrorism and its principal sponsor for the last three decades, the surprise is that the President decided to say so disregarding the compulsions that have hithertofore guided the US strategy. The President also took his own establishment by surprise as they scurried to turn his tweet into a policy/strategy vis-à-vis Pakistan, which, based on a review, was only to be ready by March 2018. That the tweet was itself in search of a strategy has been noted by all the players. Nonetheless, it has given affected parties time to shape their strategy despite the spontaneous glee or despair expressed depending on which side of the fence you are.
The US has had a chequered strategic relationship with Pakistan shaped by its national security interests and the geo-strategic location of the latter. Pakistan jumped on the US bandwagon as a bulwark against Communism and earned its support for the Kashmir cause. Free economic and military aid flowed, which helped the newly-independent, impoverished nation to raise modern armed forces and develop strategic ambitions. The relationship soured owing to lack of active support in 1965 and 1971 wars. However, the economic aid and military relationship never faltered. The relations again warmed up when Pakistan facilitated the US-China detente in early seventies. Intervention of the erstwhile Soviet Union saw Pakistan at the forefront of the US proxy war in Afghanistan. Both together created Jihadi Terrorism, often cited by Pakistan as the cause for its current turmoil.
Once Soviet Union was defeated in Afghanistan and the Cold War ended, the relationship again soured owing to Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions and its strategy in Afghanistan. It was seen as the principal sponsor of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. This is when Presidents Bush Senior and Bill Clinton actively considered declaring Pakistan a terrorist state. Yet both circumvented the Pressler amendment and continued with economic and military aid. Dithering by the US led to terrorism flourishing in both Pakistan and Afghanistan with the Al Qaeda focussing on the US and ISI-sponsored terrorists on Jammu and Kashmir. 9/11 woke up the US from hibernation and it threatened “to make a horrible example of Pakistan” and “bomb it back to the stone age”. However, the US focussed on Afghanistan and not Pakistan. For operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s support was a sine qua non. Thus, despite having no illusions about Pakistan’s duplicitous conduct, it continued to provide billions of dollars worth of aid in various forms. Pakistan despite the setback remained focussed on its strategy to re-establish a favourable government in Afghanistan no matter how long it takes and even if it had to bring about the “defeat” of another super power.
What then is the reason for President Trump’s still evolving strategy to rein in and discipline Pakistan? No President wants to preside over a defeat, and defeat is looming large in Afghanistan. Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Group, based in and sponsored by Pakistan, have made immense gains in Afghanistan reducing the writ of the government to the municipal limits of a handful of cities. The US has failed to win the war at the strategic level. Token increment of three to four thousand advisors/trainers taking the number of troops to 14,000 is not going to make any difference when 1,20,000 coalition troops could not achieve the strategic goals from 2001 to 2011. The unsaid strategic aim of the US is a face-saving exit. It wants the Taliban and the Haqqani Group to be reined in and “softened” for a negotiated settlement with the Afghan government even at the risk of them eventually devouring it. The only country that can manage to do this for the US, is Pakistan. This aim and the unpredictability of President Trump are the reasons for the new “hard” strategy against Pakistan. To what extent it will succeed will depend upon the leverage the US can exert, how Pakistan responds and the role of China and Russia.
Pakistan has very clear political aims vis-à-vis Afghanis — it wants an Afghanistan it can influence and control to ensure the security of its western flank and keep Pakhtun nationalism under check. Any Indian influence or presence in Afghanistan is seen as a direct threat. It accuses India of perpetrating a Fourth Generation War (4GW) in Pakistan using Afghanistan as a base. Despite all the pressures after 9/11 and despite massive presence of the US and its allies, it never deviated from its strategy.
Pakistan has perfected the art of “running with the hares and hunting with the hounds” in respect of its Afghan strategy. The initial grandstanding notwithstanding, Pakistan will selectively play along with the US to facilitate its face-saving exit. Thereafter Pakistan will aim to gradually assist its proxies to usurp power. Loyalties change fast in Afghanistan and one may well see the loyalists of the present government switch over sides.
The peace and stability thereafter will be guaranteed by China, Russia and possibly Iran. All three want a stable Afghanistan without American presence. This is the end state Pakistan is likely to seek in next four to five years. It is not too worried about the loss of aid as it has the backing of China and the Arab world. It may even sacrifice a few leaders of its proxies to show its sincerity. The US no longer has the will to fight in Afghanistan, hence by design or default it will settle for a face-saving exit.
The upsurge in violence in Afghanistan over the last few days is a signal from Pakistan that if push comes to a shove, it is prepared to defy the US and make its exit even more ignominious. With Chinese backing, North Korea has called the US’ bluff. Pakistan is also tacitly signalling that if pushed beyond a point, it will go the North Korean way. Simultaneously, Pakistan may even secretly develop intercontinental ballistic missiles like North Korea if it has secretly not already done so.
China has invested a lot in the economic corridor and it can not allow an unstable Afghanistan on the flank of its flagship project. It is likely to fill the void left by the departure of the US with full support of Russia and Iran. So, we may well see a stable Afghanistan but with changed equations. In this scenario, India’s influence is Afghanistan is likely to diminish considerably.
It is pertinent to point out that the US has said very little about Pakistan perpetrating a 4GW in Jammu and Kashmir. Its focus is entirely on a face-saving exit from Afghanistan. Pakistan’s strategy vis-à-vis India is unlikely to undergo any change despite the developing strategic partnership between the US and India. It has relentlessly pursued its strategy in J&K despite the “hard strategy” adopted by India. In fact, it has neutralised this strategy by ignoring the surgical strikes and stepping up the 4GW in J&K. It has responded to all actions of India along the Line of Control and the working boundary in a quid pro quo manner exposing the limitations of India’s strategic options.
It should be clear to us that the “hard line” adopted by the US on Pakistan is in pursuit of its national interests in Afghanistan. It will not affect Pakistan’s strategy vis-à-vis India. Keeping in view the likely scenario to emerge in Afghanistan in the next few years, it may be prudent for us to renew diplomatic efforts to join the peace process and remain a player in Afghanistan post-American exit.