U.S. President Donald Trump delivered a much-awaited speech on Afghanistan and South Asia on Monday from the Fort Myer military base in Arlington, Virginia, home of the Arlington war cemetery where hundreds of U.S. soldiers who lost their lives in Afghanistan (and elsewhere) are buried. The Afghan war, in its 16th year, is now America’s longest running conflict, with successive presidents, generals, and leaders failing to come up with a blueprint on how to exit the colossal mess.
However, contrary to perhaps what many analysts were expecting, Trump’s speech, which revolved largely around Afghanistan, was precise and offered a sketch of what change, if any, his administration could orchestrate in the region compared to both his predecessor Barack Obama, and even George W. Bush. For India, it was Trump’s remarks on Pakistan that resonated more positively in the power corridors of New Delhi than Trump’s re-commitments to Afghanistan.
“We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe-havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond. We have paid Pakistan billions and billions of dollars. At the same time, they are housing the very terrorists we are fighting,” Trump said, in a succinct, clear, and direct comment towards Islamabad.
India’s reaction to Trump’s statements on Afghanistan were “welcoming,” and as per reports, New Delhi had a “heads up” of the line that Trump was going to announce so as it was not caught off guard. However, despite approving stance on Afghanistan and an increase in troop numbers by the United States, the public reprimand of Pakistan for harboring terrorists was perhaps the moment that would gain the most mileage for India, not just today, but in the months to come.
Nevertheless, despite the platitudes, it is not the first time that stern words have come out of the mouth of a U.S. leader toward Pakistan and its habitual sponsorship of terrorism. Obama called out the same in 2009, and the reactions by Pakistan then can offer us a glimpse today into what America’s most volatile Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA) would do to protect its interests. One of the critical failures here that the United States, under successive governments, has failed to address is the fact that Pakistan’s approach to sponsoring terrorism on both sides of its borders has different reasoning. Washington, while pressuring Pakistan to counter terrorism on its own territory, has not gone the extra mile required to pressurize Islamabad to crack-down on terror factions that work almost exclusively against India.
In 2014, Islamabad launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb to flush out terrorists in the fraught regions of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), North Waziristan, and Khyber-Pakhtunkwa — a war-package devised under pressure from the United States as a systemic tool to appease apprehensions in Washington, and to cut any political liabilities and financial blockade that may have been coming its way. While Pakistani people have indeed suffered through the terror acts of the likes perpetrated by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the United States and much of the global order has for the longest time turned a blind-eye to India’s flagging of Pakistani state-sponsored terrorism on its soil, with groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and so on have made a cottage-industry for anti-India terror outfits operating with impunity, with 26/11, Pathankot and a host of other strikes standing as tall reminders.
Words have never been in shortage in Washington, or in the art of politics itself. It is the lack of action that has always stymied American concerns over terrorism in Pakistan, even after Al Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden was found and killed in Abbottabad, a mere 110 km north of the country’s capital. Despite reports suggesting further actionable intent from the United States after Trump’s talk, including sanctions on Pakistani Army and its intelligence agency ISI’s personnel it remains to be seen whether any palpable distinction is made by the Trump administration in dealing with its South Asian MNNA status holder than what we have seen until now. It is possible, to thwart any misadventure by Trump, Pakistan launches further retaliations around the Durand line, targeting not just the Taliban, but the Islamic State as well, whose ranks initially in Afghanistan were largely composed of fleeing jihadists as result of the Zarb-e-Azb campaign.
Over the past few months, and through his speech at Fort Myer, the U.S. president has in fact given precedence to Pakistan to formulate measures that will be sellable to Trump’s vision of ‘no nation building, only killing terrorists’. Islamabad can now look to double-down on its campaigns around the Durand Line, and attaching its efforts to events such as the MOAB strike by the US in Afghanistan’s Achin province on its borders with Pakistan, marketing it as its ‘new anti-terror’ strategy. Most of the fighters in the ISIS Afghanistan (ISKP) brand are former Pakistan Taliban (TTP) members, who had been fleeing military operations conducted by the Pakistani armed forces in the country’s tribal areas such as FATA, Waziristan and so on. These jihadists arrived into the Achin province and Nazian under the cover of being refugees, and were initially settled by local villages with a sympathetic outlook towards them for being Pashtuns. These “refugees” used this situation to look for new avenues to go back to their premiere career paths, terrorism, and started to develop an environment and infrastructure (madrasas and so on) for the same, possibly with backing from Pakistani actors.
If history is to be consulted, this re-packaging sells well within the White House and perhaps more importantly, the Pentagon, with the United States entering another cycle of ignoring Pakistan’s terror efforts on the ‘other’ front. For a formidable shift in strategy and policy, the Trump administration needs to start looking from within what fighting terrorism in South Asia entails and how it expects to be different from the previous administrations. The outcome of the offered hard-line against Pakistan’s harboring of terrorism is inviting, however, it is a trailer that India is far too familiar with from fruitless past efforts. The next few months will ascertain whether the Trump administration is indeed shifting the sails on how the United States views Pakistan’s terrorism problem, a hope resonating in New Delhi. India wants the United States to move on clamping down Pakistan’s state-sponsored terrorism activities, and not continue to treat the same as a spectator-sport.
Kabir Taneja is an Associate Fellow with the Strategic Studies programme at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.