US' Afghan policy review must include stern message to Pakistan; soft-pedaling on terrorism will impact stability

The much awaited Afghan policy review of the Donald  Trump administration seems to be proceeding in a series of jerks and reversals, with the ebullient president often contradicting his own directions, and the press alternately predicting an increase or a decrease in US troops. Recent statements from the White House showed Trump’s increasing frustration with a war, which the US is seen as losing and whose whole purpose is increasingly unclear — at least in terms of dollars and cents.

While there are several official statements and documents on the expected policy review, what is common to all of these is the extreme care with which Pakistan is mentioned. Unlike the references to North Korea as a “flagrant menace” or Iran as an “evil” country, Pakistan gets away with a modest language. Worse, an official Department of Defense document from June 2017, blandly states that Pakistan is in Afghanistan because of its "national interest” and “India-centric” policy. How a country’s “national interest” justifies the killing of more than 2,500 US soldiers and 26,000 Afghans defies logic. It is hardly surprising, then that the US is losing the war in Afghanistan.

The public debate is even more dismaying. At one end of the spectrum are those academics who believe that Pakistan faces an 'existential threat' from Indian presence in Afghanistan. Arising from this is the central policy recommendation that Pakistan’s fears have to be accommodated to “Win” the war. Thus, they suggest a dialogue between India, Pakistan, as a surefire method of getting Islamabad to see reason. Even the few who argue for a coercive policy, limit this to arguments for economic sanctions against Islamabad. Pakistani academics naturally exploit this sentiment to the full. One even repudiated any suggestion of US coercion on the basis that Washington no longer had the leverage it once had due to increasing Chinese presence.

Representational image. AP

Representational image. AP

It would be useful if someone could disaggregate this apparent ‘existentialist’ threat to Pakistan from India. The so called threat could hardly mean that Pakistan expects war on two fronts - both from India and Afghanistan. Given the pathetic state of the Afghan security forces, and the severe problems in the war-torn country that are expected to last for the foreseeable future, such a thought is absurd. Or does alleged Indian operations in support of Baluch insurgents constitute a threat to Pakistan’s existence. Even if true, such an Indian adventure would certainly be a highly limited exercise, given Iran’s complete opposition to Baluch independence.

Moreover, not a leaf falls in Nimroz and Farah, without Teheran being aware of it. Certainly Indian influence is rising in Afghanistan, given its more than $2 billion in aid, with additional $1 billion committed this year. As one of the largest donors, India is seen as an important factor in Afghan stability. However, Pakistan has little reason to fear Indian aid in areas other than defence. Indian military assistance to Afghanistan has remained limited to the late 2015 provision of a few attack helicopters. Even this pittance was granted after years of embarrassing foot dragging by New Delhi. Hopefully, assistance should increase after the meeting between President Trump and Prime Minister Modi. At least, that might give Pakistanis something concrete to grouse about.

Meanwhile, eminent academics advise that Washington should push India and Pakistan into a bilateral dialogue on Afghanistan. The agenda for such a meeting, however, would be puzzling. Would India commit itself to completely stop vital aid to Afghanistan? Would it be expected to stop work on the port in Chabahar, which is aimed at building connectivity across the region? Why this creates “apprehensions” in Islamabad is unclear since nothing prevents Pakistan from giving Afghanistan free access to its own ports, and encouraging trade with South Asia. Both Pakistan and Iranian ports are central to connectivity across the region, and key to Afghanistan’s future.

Finally, if Pakistan’s 40-year support to terrorism in Afghanistan is due to Indian activity, then it needs to be exposed as a blatant lie. Pakistan began this whole mess in 1976, long before the Soviet intervention. Its backing of Mujahideen was then aimed at eroding Kabul’s refusal to recognise the Durand Line as the common border. The US then waded into the fray and President Trump should be reminded that his intelligence agencies allowed Pakistan to decide the why, when and where of assistance to the Mujahideen. The ISI backed only the most extreme of groups, leading directly to the present rampant growth in Islamic radicalism. During this period, India and several other countries did back the Northern Alliance, a grouping under the charismatic Ahmed Shah Massoud. After the Soviets left, severe internecine warfare broke out, with Kabul being bombed nearly everyday. In the midst of this violence, Indian influence was limited to a few dusty desks and chairs in the embassy, and little else. It was at this time that Pakistan began its third war in Afghanistan, with the backing of the Taliban. Clearly Pakistan’s motivations for its bloody adventures need closer scrutiny.

In sum, Pakistan’s Afghan war is a habit that it needs to be broken out of , much as a smoker needs to be weaned off his nicotine dose for his own good. The question is whether the US has the ability to do this. If history is any guide, coercion did succeed admirably. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the then Intelligence chief Lt Gen Mahmood Ahmed is known to have been summoned to meet Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage where he was reportedly told “you are either one hundred percent with us , or one hundred percent against us”. While Armitage later denied that he threatened to bomb Pakistan into the Stone Age — as alleged by the retired General Musharraf — he did admit that he had given Pakistan a choice that was for Americans, either “ black or white”. That conversation succeeded. Not only were the Taliban pulled back swiftly, but Pakistan also closed down some specific terrorist camps that threatened India. This was the first and the last time this ever happened. The Pakistani establishment apparently did understand the difference between black and white.

Can the US do this now? Certainly it’s military capability provides the muscular backing to threaten the use of force. A quiet message from the senior most levels should be aimed at a demand for a verifiable and complete end to support for the Taliban, which should include the end of banking support, shelter for rest and recuperation and most of all the movement of explosives.

Such a message is likely to get quiet Chinese support, even if it balks publicly. Beijing has little love for jihadi groups, given their continued incursions into volatile Xinjiang. It would be even more supportive, if it got the message clearly that the US wants out. In war, as in everything else, it is the clarity of the message that provides results — whether in Punjabi, Pashto, or Mandarin.


Published Date: Aug 07, 2017 12:27 pm | Updated Date: Aug 07, 2017 01:01 pm


Also See