It was anticipated that a development on the Af-Pak strategy (announced by former US President Barack Obama in March 2009) would take place and it has taken place.
On August 21, US President Donald Trump finally issued his policy statement on South Asia including Afghanistan. President Trump asked Pakistan to stem immediately the tide of the Taliban and the Haqqani network originating from the areas around Quetta and Peshawar and attacking the US army personnel in Afghanistan. He further said that Pakistan was tolerant to their sanctuaries on its mainland and that he was sending additional four thousand troops to already 8,400 US troops in Afghanistan. He implied that in case Pakistan failed to comply, Pakistan should be ready for the entry of US forces into Pakistan’s areas where safe heavens lied. To add insult to injury, the US would be giving more role to India in Afghanistan.
In fact, this is Trump’s policy on Afghanistan. Its first major feature is that the policy extends the mandate of US forces beyond Pakistan’s tribal areas which were included in Afghanistan for operational purposes by Obama’s Af-Pak strategy. This time the suburban areas of Quetta and Peshawar are pointed out for operations, by both the military and drones. This is quite a worrisome development for Pakistan. The second feature is that the policy is in utter disregard of Pakistan’s concerns about India. In order to include India in the equation, the policy dropped the term Af-Pak and used the term South Asia.
To defend Pakistan’s position, the first response came from China, followed by Russia. In principle, neither China nor Russia should have responded to the US on Pakistan’s behalf. The snub to both China and Russia has come not from the US but from BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) nations which are considered five emerging economies of the world. On September 4, through a joint declaration before the conclusion of the huddle, China and Russia agreed to denounce certain terrorist organizations (such as the Jaish-e-Muhammad, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Haqqani network) which somehow had been using Pakistan’s land for sanctuaries to target neighbouring countries. The point is simple: China can veto a resolution at the UNSC against any leader of these organizations (e.g. Maulana Masood Azhar of the Jaish) to defer a crisis, but China cannot change the ground reality. Pakistan has unnecessarily enjoined upon China to safeguarding Pakistan’s interests. Interestingly, the BRICS declaration resembles the contents of the DAWN leaks which instigated civil-military tension in Pakistan in October 2016.
This situation beckons two ifs. First, if it is assumed that the DAWN leaks was a fabrication, Trump’s policy sounds shocking. However, if it is assumed that the DAWN leaks was a fact, Trump’s policy is fathomable. Retrospectively, the DAWN leaks was a reflection of what was being bandied about regionally and internationally about Pakistan. The only ignorant lot was Pakistan itself. This if is bound to have a long-term odious effect on civil-military relations in Pakistan. Second, if the information aired through the Trump policy is true, it means that the US has acknowledged the absence of safe heavens in the tribal areas but the US is saying that the sanctuaries have been relocated inward to the suburbs of Quetta and Peshawar. This if is bound to have long-term invidious effect on Pakistan-US relations.
Pakistan’s worsening civil-military relations permitted US Ambassador David Hale to call on Pakistan’s COAS General Qamar Javed Bajwa at the General Headquarters on August 23. One meaning of this meeting could be that the US considered the army more potent than the elected government to solve the issue whereas the other meaning could be that the US considered the army culpable for designing a situation that invited Trump’s policy. In both cases, the US considers the elected government helpless in this regard.
General Bajwa said to Ambassador Hale, “We are not looking for any material or financial assistance from the US, but trust, understanding and [an] acknowledgement of our contributions in the war on terror.” Consequently, the dormant “ghairat” (honour) brigade has sprung to life.
Regarding material or financial assistance from the US, one can notice that when an army general is holding the reins of the country as the martial law administrator, he is always demanding aid from the US, but when an army general is limited to the GHQ and civilians are ruling over the country, the general is fiercely anti-US aid. Certainly, when civilians are in the driving seat, this is their headache to withstand any consequent economic sanctions. For instance, in 1979, US President Jimmy Carter offered Pakistan or precisely General Zia-ul-Haq the military aid of US $ 400 million to complement the anti-communist drive of the US. In response, General Zia condescended to the amount by calling it “peanuts”. Some Pakistanis, the “ghairat” brigade of that time, extolled General Zia for the utterance. However, the US got the cue that there was present an implied consent and that General Zia would be ready to do the US bidding if the amount was increased. Consequently, in the beginning of 1981, the next US President Ronald Reagan increased the US military aid to US$ 3 billion to make General Zia to consummate assistance by keep on training and exporting proxies to Afghanistan. Similarly, after 9/11, General Pervez Musharraf gladly received US military aid, which amounted to more than US$ 12 billion by 2008. Both military dictators were in need of money because they had to run the country financially.
Regarding trust, understanding and an acknowledgement of contributions, one finds it a very impassioned statement, but it falls flat because of two reasons. First, to decimate sanctuaries of al-Qaeda from the tribal area, the US started drone strikes in 2004. It was because of drone strikes either the al-Qaeda operatives lost lives or they fled for Yamen. Second, in 2001 after 9/11, the UNSC passed two resolutions (1368 and 1373) against al-Qaeda and its head, Osama bin Laden. However, much to the chagrin of the “ghairat” brigade, bin Laden was found hiding in a large house in Abbottabad in May 2011. The trust deficit was so high that the US forces launched a clandestine operation crossing over Pak-Afghan border to eliminate bin Laden. Against this background, what trust, understanding and acknowledgement General Bajwa is demanding is still unknown. Unfortunately, the realities on the ground are no respecter of one’s zeal for the country.
Interestingly, the words “South Asia” and “India” mentioned in Trump’s policy offered Pakistan’s foreign office godsend space to illuminate its own presence by raising the Kashmir issue by linking stability in Afghanistan with the resolution of the Kashmir issue. The foreign office is perhaps saying that the Kashmir issue led to the Afghanistan issue, as if Kashmir and Afghanistan were contiguous geographically, and hence the concomitance of solutions. It is yet unknown what the reason was to commit such a blunder, other than to complicate the situation further. Unfortunately, the BRICS declaration would also offer a snub to the foreign office because out of three, two organizations (Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba) are said to be launching attacks in both Kashmir and India.
The point is simple. Pakistan may claim that there are no sanctuaries of the Taliban and other groups in Pakistan and hence there is no need for Pakistan to do more, but Pakistan cannot claim that Kabul is not attacked. Precisely, the problem for the US is neither the Taliban sanctuaries nor the Quetta Shura nor the Haqqani network; instead, the problem for the US is that Kabul should work smoothly undeterred by any attack.
The problem buffeting Pakistan is that every institution looks for an opportunity to raise its status at the expense of the other’s size. It is not that Pakistan’s foreign office cannot handle the Trump challenge, it is that the yearning for activism coupled with populism by non-democratic institutions is a big challenge to run smoothly Pakistan’s affairs, both external and internal. However, one thing is sure, Pakistan’s army should brace itself for a conflict on Pakistan’s western border. It is yet to be seen whether weapons and hardware obtained from the US, through aid or on subsidy, would be deployed against the US forces or not. It is also to be seen to what extent China and Russia can bail Pakistan out of any conflict quagmire. It is yet to be seen when the next spell of latency consumes the “ghairat” brigade.