In a September 2012 telephone conversation with the erstwhile US president Barack Obama, then Afghan President Hamid Karzai asked him to “cut into the activity of war and make up with Pakistan on the peace process with the Taliban” in Afghanistan or “take the war against terrorism where the sanctuaries are”.
President Karzai said the war had been “brought to Afghan doors” and “imposed” upon Afghans from “outside”, but “nothing” had been done to prevent terror attacks emanating from Pakistan. He emphasized that the US should either “work for peace” or go on “a clear war against terrorism”.
President Obama replied that his “assessment is the path to peace” and not to go to war against Pakistan. In Obamas own words, Pakistan had been “a strong anti-terror partner since 9/11”.
Fast forward five years to the current US administration under President Donald Trump? Is he really cutting Pakistan off from the sources of aid that have kept it afloat these past several years?
In order to get Pakistan to cooperate, Washington must genuinely choose “the path to peace” in Afghanistan and engage with China, India, Russia and Iran. Unilateral US pressure on Pakistan alongside an intensified military campaign in Afghanistan will severely fail and push Pakistan further to China’s power orbits.
America’s strong anti-terror partner of “lies & deceit”
After 16 years of war and occupation, apparently the current US administration has arrived at the conclusion that enables them to publicly state that the terrorists they have been haunting in Afghanistan for over a decade have been given “safe haven” by Pakistan. But were the American “leaders” really caught up in a web of “lies and deceit” by the Pakistani establishment until now? All these long years, thousands of Afghans died and Afghanistan fell into rack and ruin in a war which was not theirs. The US “war on terror” became a war against the Afghan people, their homes and villages.
The Pakistan paradox in US policy
Behind closed doors, in their meetings with the Afghan President, senior US officials often acknowledged Pakistan’s continued interference through its support of the Taliban and other violent armed groups spreading terror in Afghanistan. The result of such meetings only made Karzai more suspicious of the US agenda in his country and the wider region. He began to see US military operations in the country, mainly in southern Afghanistan, not as a war against terror but “against a group of people” – his – the Afghans.
Karzai told President Obama that Afghans perceived their government as a “puppet” and were justified in their frustration and anger against him as well as foreign forces.
Obama replied saying that he knew Karzai and the Afghan people had “legitimate concerns” and that he did not “dispute” Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan’s insecurity and destabilization. “They want to hurt us by hurting you”, said Obama, although he also saw a “civil war element” in the conflict.
“Our capacity to launch attacks on sanctuaries in Pakistan will open a new front for all of us”, warned President Obama, adding that this “new front” would “last for years”. He also pointed out that this was not “realistic strategy” as it would cause “civilian casualties” as well as the “violation” of Pakistan’s “sovereignty”. It seemed that to him Afghanistan’s sovereignty and the loss of Afghans lives did not really matter.
Obama’s conclusion was that Afghanistan has a “rocky road” ahead and there “would be no peace any time soon”. He urged the Afghan president to finalize and sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with Washington, otherwise foreign forces would withdraw from Afghanistan and Kabul would be left on its own to deal with “Pakistan” and its support for the “Taliban”.
Karzai took Obama’s words as a threat. It was a harsh and ugly reality for him to accept. He told a Cabinet meeting later that, the US is “telling the thief to steal and the homeowner to be alert!” Washington cannot be with “the victims [Afghanistan] as well as with the supporters [Pakistan] of terrorism”, Karzai said.
Obama’s message was clear: Pakistan was serving US foreign policy interests in Afghanistan and the region.
Pakistan has long served US interests
It will not be correct to state that Pakistan has given “nothing” to the US. During the Cold War too Pakistan was used by Washington as “the launching pad” for America’s covert operations in different parts of the world. Senior officials in the Pakistani and American establishments have long been bedfellows. They serve Washington’s foreign policy interests.
Washington desperately needs to keep the Pakistani Ground Lines of Communication (GLOCs) into Afghanistan open for its “war on terror”. Therefore, in all probability, Trump’s administration will not cut the money flowing to Pakistan for US and NATO vital supply routes into Afghanistan. It is not security assistance nor military aid and freezing it would make Pakistan close the GLOCs again. “In 2011 when Pakistan closed the GLOCS, we went through Russia and Central Asia”, notes Barnett Rubin, a leading American expert on Afghanistan and South Asia. However, he adds, “now we have put sanctions on the same railroads we were using then, and there is no way Putin will agree to help us.”
Is Trump really cutting Pakistan off?
Now, imagine that there is a real change in Washington’s strategic thinking vis-à-vis Pakistan. How far, then, can the Trump administration go in pressuring Pakistan to cooperate? Will its efforts be limited to suspending aid and imposing sanctions aimed at some state and non-state Pakistani actors involved in terror plots against Afghanistan? Or will the US resolve to undertake military options, in case Pakistan fails to deliver?
I believe the success of every aforementioned option and any other effort by the US government to fix Pakistan depends on the cooperation of regional powers with Washington. However, this is a luxury Washington does not enjoy anymore in Afghanistan. The general environment in the region is not in favor of the United States to take real action against Pakistan. Besides New Delhi, all three capitals — Moscow, Beijing and Tehran — have increasingly hostile relations with Washington and see American motives in the “war on terror” with suspicion. They view the US military presence in Afghanistan as intended to “comprehensively” counter their influence and policies in the region. The ongoing unrest in Iran is rapidly deteriorating Tehran’s relations with Washington. This can, undoubtedly, strengthen US dependence on Pakistan.
The ongoing US-Pakistan war of words is a big test for Washington, besides of course the conduct of the “war on terror”. However, it will not result in a divorce between the two. Like it or not, Afghanistan should accept that there is no solution without Pakistan.