Raja Mandala: General Bajwa in his labyrinth

With Trump administration testing the limits of coercive diplomacy, he must choose between handing in terrorists or facing America’s wrath.

Written by C. Raja Mohan | Published: January 9, 2018 12:24 am
Pakistan, US, US-Pakistan, United states, pakistan foreign office, terrorism, Pakistan terrorism, Donald trump, world news, Indian express news The talking heads on Pakistani television are outdoing each other in the denunciation of President Donald Trump’s decision to suspend a billion dollars of aid.

Hand in the Haqqanis or hang on to them? That is the dilemma before the Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, so aptly summed by a Pakistani columnist for the Dawn newspaper. In the face of unexpected and significant pressure from the United States to deliver some top militants of the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, the generals in Rawalpindi are locked in a serious debate.

That debate behind closed doors is surely very different from the one in the public. The talking heads on Pakistani television are outdoing each other in the denunciation of President Donald Trump’s decision to suspend a billion dollars of aid. Pakistan’s politicians have postured with predictable bravado. The religious groups have burnt the American flag in the streets.

All these familiar rituals are interesting but inconsequential. What matters is the line adopted by the Pakistan Army. The statements from GHQ so far have been rather moderate and underlined the need for continued engagement with Washington.

Rawalpindi has also avoided hasty retaliatory steps like the withdrawal of logistical support for American forces in Afghanistan. US Defence Secretary James Mattis has said that the the US military establishment is in contact with General Bajwa.

There is no question that Rawalpindi would want to find a way out of the current impasse with Washington. For General Bajwa, the question of suspension of American aid is not the problem. It is the demand for immediate action against terrorist groups that destabilise Afghanistan. The US has combined this demand with the threat to escalate the confrontation if Rawalpindi does not act decisively.

The next steps under consideration in Washington apparently include the targeted sanctioning of Pakistan Army generals involved in fomenting trouble in Afghanistan and limiting economic assistance from international financial institutions. To make matters worse, Washington appears to have set a firm deadline for decisive action.

The Pakistan Army has not been prepared to deal with an American president who publicly accuses it of “lies and deceit” and whose security advisers promise to act against terrorists in Pakistan if Rawalpindi does not.

That puts General Bajwa in the kind cleft stick that Pervez Musharraf found himself on September 11, 2001, when al Qaeda launched spectacular terror attacks on New York and Washington. The then US Deputy Secretary of State, Richard Armitage, warned General Musharraf that Pakistan will be bombed to the Stone Age if Rawalpindi did not assist America in destroying al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

After reflecting on the US ultimatum, Musharraf went public on September 19 to explain his decision to support the US military invasion of Afghanistan. He argued that Pakistan’s territorial integrity could be undermined if he chose to confront the US and the international community. Musharraf also pointed to the need to counter India’s campaign to declare Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism, and Delhi’s alleged plans to open a second front against Pakistan in Afghanistan. He also stressed the importance of promoting Pakistan’s economic growth, protecting its nuclear and missile arsenal, and securing the “Kashmir cause”.

Musharraf also turned to religion to defend his decision. “Islamic law provides that if we are faced with two difficulties and we have to select one of them, it is always better to choose the lesser trouble.” So what might General Bajwa choose: Sacrifice the Haqqanis or save them from the American wrath? Embark on a prolonged confrontation with America or do filicide against the Taliban and the Haqqani network?

Bajwa, like his predecessors, Generals Musharraf, Pervez Kayani and Raheel Sharif, would want to alter the terms of the negotiation with the US. He would want to bring in other issues like the alleged terror sanctuaries in Afghanistan and the Kashmir dispute with India. Bajwa would want the US to pare down its demands and offer something to Pakistan in return. Above all, he would want to string this out.

For now, though, Washington is not having any of this. It says fighting terrorists is in “Pakistan’s own interest”. And the Trump administration has set the clock ticking. Unlike many in Washington who worry about the consequences of confronting Pakistan, the Trump administration seems ready to test the limits of coercive diplomacy against Rawalpindi.

It is not clear if Bajwa has Musharraf’s gumption to feign tactical cooperation with America as part of a strategic deception. He might want to keep playing the old game with America. But Trump is laying down new rules.

As it waits for the outcomes from the current dynamic between the US and Pakistan, India should do three things. The first is to hold its tongue in public. For now, the focus of the US-Pak confrontation is Afghanistan. Delhi has no reason to inject itself into that conversation.

Second, India could contribute in a modest way to the eventual outcomes in Afghanistan by raising the level of India’s security cooperation with Kabul. Unlike Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Trump is asking India to help shore up the government in Afghanistan. India must shed its past inhibitions on doing more in Afghanistan.

Finally, Delhi must sustain the current channel of communication between national security adviser Ajit Doval and his Pakistani counterpart, General Nasir Khan Janjua. At this moment of great turmoil in India’s north-western frontiers, regular contact with the Pakistan Army is quite important.

The writer is director, Carnegie India, Delhi and contributing editor on foreign affairs for ‘The Indian Express’.

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  1. Ashok Sopori
    Jan 10, 2018 at 3:59 pm
    We hope Indian officials heed to the golden advice, Hold the tongue in public . Dont seem to get involved in US--Pak spat. Accelerate the interaction with Kashmir Civic society without seeming to attain any political benefits for the party, Hold it with firm grip on security situation both internal and external. You have already gone ahead for our own good to support Afghan Govt, Don't back track now , go the extra mile in ensuring Kabul govts strength to defeat destabilising forces . Presdent Trump already at ease with Soviets in middle East may opt for Russians -Indian-- US effort to bring peace in Afghanistan, India should suppor and accelerate the process to offset any future change of US mind due to US internal politics.
      Jan 10, 2018 at 8:32 am
      Yes, India should maintain a studied silence.Beware that China would enter into the 'US gap, in Pakistan , and China is everywhere a scrambler for land rights and influences. In this game of international relations, we too should silently carve out spheres of influence and rights, and should not be angelic only.
      1. Ram Nath
        Jan 10, 2018 at 1:17 pm
        The trouble is, if India refuses to side with America, America will not help it when China attacks.
      2. Suren Singh Sahni
        Jan 10, 2018 at 3:38 am
        With the exit of US from Pakistani theatre it’s vital that India maintains some influence with Pakistan intelligentsia.If China becomes the main actor then its repercussions on Indian security will be phenomenal.Enmity can’t last forever and when the change comes we should have friends their.
        1. Mail Me
          Jan 10, 2018 at 1:03 am
          This is a humiliation like never before for Pakistan. Trump may be controversial, but he picked overclever and devious Pakis correctly and put lot of mud on their faces. He is also not listening to their typical rhetorics which include posturing and chest thumping, nor is he amused by their deflections. Pakis will bend on their knees when US disallow loans from IMF and WB. US will also stop all spares for military equipment. Pakis deserved this public flogging and humiliation.
          1. mtv
            Jan 10, 2018 at 6:16 am
            Only American president who could say these words so bluntly. PAK has managed all US presidents before that using their devious duplicity. But not with Trump. I am not a supporter of Trump for many of his other policies. But I like his open talks and he does not care for political correctness like Obama.
          2. Seshubabu Kilambi
            Jan 9, 2018 at 9:48 pm
            US exported terorists to pak and now trump is exprtin lies and deceit to cover up its sins
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