One of the important objectives of President Donald Trump’s new South Asia policy is to end the Pakistan army’s four decades of addiction to jihadi terrorism. While many in America think it’s a great idea, there are very few who are willing to bet on Rawalpindi kicking the habit. They point to the fact that support for terror sanctuaries has become too entrenched in the Pakistan army’s domestic and regional calculus.
Jihad as foreign policy was indeed encouraged by the US in the 1980s and blessed by many leading Islamic countries, Western Europe and China as part of the global effort against the Soviet army’s occupation of Afghanistan. Pakistan’s support to violent extremism played a key role in trapping and bleeding the Russian bear in Afghanistan. It was critical in compelling Moscow to accept a humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan at the end of the 1980s.
As the Americans turned their back on the region in the 1990s, amidst the focus on constructing the post-Cold War political arrangements in Europe, Rawalpindi persisted with the jihadi strategy across its eastern borders with Afghanistan. It also lent a new edge to cross-border terrorism across its eastern frontiers in India.
When America returned to Afghanistan and Pakistan after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, it rightly underlined the urgency of draining the terror swamps in the north-western marches of the Subcontinent. But over the last two decades, America has discovered how hard it is to change Pakistan’s course. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama found that neither money (military and economic assistance more than $30 billion since 2002), love (declaring Rawalpindi as a “major non-Nato ally”) or coercion (raining drones across Pakistan’s western borderlands) seemed to have any effect.
Many in the US argue it is not only futile but also dangerous to even try and change Pakistan’s behaviour, either at home or in the region. They insist that the tyranny of Af-Pak geography can’t be overcome. If the US wants to have troops in landlocked Afghanistan, it needs Pakistan’s logistical support. They underline the value of Pakistan’s intelligence cooperation in the global war on terror.
American sceptics also say too much pressure on Rawalpindi is not wise, for “Pakistan is too nuclear to fail”. They never cease sounding the alarm bells about the dangers of a nuclear confrontation between Pakistan and India. They raise the fear of Pakistan exporting its nuclear and missile technology to other states in the region and beyond. Put simply, Trump’s critics say the US has no option but to acquiesce in the Pakistan army’s nuclear blackmail, accommodate its claims for a dominant role in Afghanistan, and acknowledge its deep insecurities about India.
Initial responses to Trump’s speech do confirm the difficulty of getting Pakistan’s security establishment to see reason. Rawalpindi has publicly rejected Trump’s demands to shut down terror sanctuaries and has outlined its own counter demands — like getting Kabul to end its support to the groups fighting Pakistan and Delhi to make concessions on Kashmir.
Unsurprisingly, Trump’s public threat to cut off aid last week has helped rally Pakistan’s public opinion behind the flag. Pakistan’s army chief, General Qamar Bajwa, has argued that “We are not looking for any material or financial assistance from USA but trust, understanding and acknowledgement of our contributions to the war on terror.” The political class and the talking heads have taken the cue to denounce America’s betrayal.
Pakistan also feels buoyed by the diplomatic support it has received from old friends in Beijing and the new suitors in Moscow. It has postponed different levels of consultations with Washington and is dispatching its foreign minister on a defiant visit to China, Russia and Turkey. The objective is to demonstrate that the US can’t isolate Pakistan.
Does this mean Trump has to simply back down and return to the default mode when it comes to Pakistan’s jihadi strategy? Not so fast. The difficulties of sustaining the current US position do seem insurmountable in the face of America’s past record with Pakistan. Trump’s team has surely taken all these problems into consideration when it got the US President to demand that Pakistan must end — right now — its unacceptable commitment to jihadi terrorism.
The Trump team is saying the past is not always a guide to the future. Just because some lines of pressure on Pakistan were not tried out does not mean they won’t be now. While signalling a new political will to do things it would not in the past — kinetic and financial targeting of terror groups and their facilitators in Pakistan’s security establishment — the Trump administration has held these measures close to its chest. How and when they might be unveiled will depend on the political engagement with Pakistan in the coming weeks.
Although it has thumbed its nose at Trump, Rawalpindi is bound to talk with Washington sooner than later. It has always valued the special relationship with America and is aware of the dangers of inviting Washington’s wrath. Pakistan’s upper crust too has many personal and pecuniary links with the West. While defiance marks Rawalpindi’s public posture, its private approach might well be defined by pretended deference, claims of victimhood, protests against abandonment and obfuscation on supporting terror.