LESS than two months after President Donald Trump made what was billed as his administration’s muscular, new policy on South Asia, New Delhi has been delivered a warning that this road-map appears depressingly similar to the worn, old one that led nowhere. Following the release of the Canadian-American family held by jihadists in a Pakistan Army hostage-release operation clouded by questions, President Trump tweeted that he was “starting to develop a much better relationship with Pakistan and its leaders”. The tweet came even as Pakistan’s government, under increasing pressure from the military, decided to drop criminal charges against Lashkar-e-Taiba chief and 26/11 perpetrator Hafiz Muhammad Saeed. President Trump also remained silent on murderous terrorist attacks in Afghanistan, most recently the killing of at least 50 in a strike on a police training facility.
Like others before him, President Trump has learned that while Pakistan’s generals do not share his country’s strategic aims, they can be a source of politically-valuable gifts. The beleaguered president desperately needs victories — and is clearly willing to overlook evidence of malfeasance in return. Even though the captives released this week were held in a region claimed to be free of terrorists, and by members of the Inter-Services Intelligence-linked Haqqani Network, the US President and his advisors have not asked the obvious questions.
This suggests that hopes that President Trump will pursue the strategic project of degrading Pakistan’s military and its jihadist allies are profoundly misplaced. In 2012, he had caustically asked when Pakistan would “apologise to us for providing safe sanctuary to Osama Bin Laden for 6 years”. Language of this kind is unlikely to be repeated any time soon.
President Trump’s willingness to be won over by the baubles offered by Pakistan’s generals will have significant consequences. Though Trump is far from the first US leader to seek to appease Pakistan’s generals for tactical gain, the circumstances in which he is operating mean the stakes are high. In recent months, Pakistan has slowly lapsed into de-facto military rule with the army successfully engineering the removal of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Illustrating who really runs the country, army public relations czar, Major General Asif Ghafoor, publicly lamented the civilian government’s stewardship of Pakistan’s economy. He, moreover, voiced support for one of Pakistan’s key Islamist causes, the anti-Ahmadiyya laws.
In Afghanistan, the actions of an emboldened Pakistan army are evident; instead of punishing Pakistan, there appears to be renewed US pressure on Kabul to negotiate with the Taliban. India, too, could feel the heat, as the US seeks to provide Pakistan’s generals with rewards for gifts rendered to the president. New Delhi must engage in an unsentimental audit of its options — and prepare its own road-map to secure its regional ends.