In Pakistan, it is October 1990 again. Islamabad and Washington have parted ways and there is a huge gap in perception and strategy on how Afghanistan as a state and society is to be resettled. In a speech on August 23, the US President announced his policy on Afghanistan, stating greater commitment to the country’s security through an increase in the number of US troops, while pointing a finger at Pakistan with the threat that Washington would “no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organisations”. This, indeed, is a long-standing point of contestation between Rawalpindi and Washington — that the former does not whole-heartedly help the US in rooting out terrorism and aiding in the stability of the regime in Kabul.
The reaction in Pakistan is anger and frustration — a kind of déjà vu. How could the US treat Pakistan this way, especially after all the sacrifices made due to the war on terror and the help provided in catching al Qaeda leaders? There is a lot of noise on the streets from political parties trying to find their way back into power like the PPP, or newer ones such as the PTI, with the religious right and militant groups not far behind. Asad Umar, a prominent leader of Imran Khan’s party, could not restrain himself from saying that “he wanted to slap Trump”. These voices work in managing anxiety on the streets regarding why relations were allowed to come to this stage or what would happen if there is an actual conflict between the US and Pakistan. They are also an expression of the fact that the divergence of policies today is far sharper than in 1990.
There is little thought going into the possibility of economic sanctions by the US and its impact on the overall economy. There is still a belief that the US will not entirely withdraw the carrot or that China could be an alternative source since it has already heavily invested in Pakistan. Surely, many of the areas will get affected, such as the NGO sector, that had burgeoned since 9/11 due to Western funding. Many of the USAID projects are already being rolled back. The pie is certainly going to shrink and that is likely to strengthen the establishment even more because many with the capability would probably lean against the state rather than question the basic policy framework.
There is no indication of any U-turn on militant groups, on which the official position is that they are being harnessed by mainstreaming them into society, involving them in politics, taking them away from violence. The other perspective recently given to American counter-terrorism experts during a US-Pakistan Track-II exercise in Washington was that the military had indeed cleared the tribal areas of terrorists and now it was the responsibility of politicians to de-radicalise society. Both positions are contestable.
However, these positions go hand in hand with the anxiety that the US is seeing just one part of the picture. Notwithstanding that Bin Laden was captured from Pakistan or that the Quetta Shura still operates in Pakistan’s territory, this itself is not enough for Washington to ignore the presence of Taliban leaders like Mullah Fazlullah in Afghanistan, who targets Pakistan. Thus far, it is turning out to be like the ending of a painful marriage, the agony of which, in this case, seems to have been worsened by Washington bringing New Delhi into the Afghan equation. It is like the ex rubbing it in by getting married again even before the divorce is complete.
The India-US relationship takes the issue to another level, which is captured by Lt. Gen (retd) Tariq Khan, who is considered in army circles as a thinking soldier. According to Khan: “The story of the safe havens we are accused of nurturing is so close to the engineered narrative about the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and now such a predictable US method to madness, that is, create a false casus belli, broadcast it, respond to it with physical force”.
Though the above position can be questioned, it also indicates the larger threat of war coming to South Asia and turning the region unstable. The global power equation and the position in South Asia is far more complex today for Washington to carry out another attack like it did in 2011 on a Pakistani military check-post. Of course, there is China in the equation, with greater power and capacity to play a role.
Beijing is willing to provide a cushion to Pakistan against America physically upping the ante. Washington would have to be very careful in ratcheting up conflict in the region because it would involve Chinese interests pertaining to the one-belt-one-road project.
The situation needs an urgent resolution through communication, which in itself is an issue at this time as both sides, Pakistan and the US, have little means to communicate.
While Pakistan faces the problem of a fairly incompetent diplomatic team in Washington whose problems are further enhanced due to political instability at home, the Trump administration has nothing to offer either. If Trump’s ultimate goal is for Pakistan to deliver through adopting a stick-and-carrot, rather than a carrot-and-stick policy, the problem is that there are no communication channels to further the conversation. There are a number of positions in the State Department that are vacant, but there is also no right person to follow up the conversation to ensure that something is delivered at the end of the day. Perhaps the families of key civil and military bureaucrats and politicians that find the US a safe haven could help start a conversation. The Trump administration would have to talk to Pakistan especially if it plans to increase the number of troops as the country offers the most cost-effective route for logistics. Iran could offer an alternative, but for that Trump would have to make major adjustments in its Middle East policy.
The tension in the region is certainly going to scale up in the coming days. The two possible conclusions that could be drawn from watching the situation is that any conflict would further establish Beijing’s ownership of Pakistan and enhance its overall position as a stakeholder in South Asian geo-politics. Secondly, a conversation ought to begin because while Trump may light a fire and withdraw, it is the ordinary people of South Asia who will have to deal with the heat. The instability of the Middle East coming to South Asia is not a great proposition.