Trans-Pacific View

The Danger of Trump’s Pakistan Approach

Taking a tougher line on Islamabad without a clear strategy is a losing proposition.

The Danger of Trump’s Pakistan Approach
Credit: US State Department Photo

With U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s speech on relations with India at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on October 18 and his later visit to South Asia, Washington appears to have unveiled a new regional strategy. But it is not really a South Asia strategy designed to address the increasingly complex challenges of the region with an integrated regional approach. It looks more like pieces of a puzzle to deal with China and Pakistan.

While the China challenge is a long term one, the “Pakistan problem” is the focus of Washington’s immediate attention. Everyone knew that all had not been well with this troubled relationship for some time, but in the short span of a few weeks it has hit a crossroads. This was the main takeaway from the Tillerson talks in Islamabad on October 24.

Pakistan and the Region

Pakistan is being seen as the foremost problem for both India and Afghanistan that has come to monopolize Washington’s interests and engagement in the region. It is being accused of hosting terrorists and militants, and thus regarded as a potential threat to the stability of the region, and especially that of India. Washington has come to see New Delhi as a bridge between its regional and geopolitical interests in South Asia, and anything that detracts from India’s strength and capability is considered as detrimental to U.S. interests.  But it is Pakistan’s alleged role in undermining the Afghanistan war by providing safe havens to the Taliban and thus affecting U.S. national security that is preoccupying America’s  immediate concern.

It all began with President Donald Trump ‘s statement on August 21, aimed at striking a new theme both on the Afghanistan war and on relations with Pakistan. The speech was a patchwork of politics, policy, and tactics. As a political speech it struck three broad themes with a strong resonance among the electorate, particularly Trump’s  base — the threat of terrorism, wastage of billions of dollars of aid, and allies not showing respect for America and in fact taking advantage of it. Not to mention American soldiers in Afghanistan coming under attack from an ally, something that arouses anger and resentment among the military.

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In terms of policy the Trump speech presaged new rules of military engagement in Afghanistan that would allow full-scale resumption of counter insurgency by U.S. forces and address the sanctuaries issue more forcefully, and try to take the fight to the Taliban and possibly to Pakistan. And tactics-wise, the speech aimed at maximizing the leverage against Pakistan by holding out threats of unspecified reprisals and undermining Pakistan’s leverage.

U.S. Commander in Afghanistan General John Nicholson said  in an NPR interview that the White House had given him more authority to attack the Taliban, more warplanes and drones to mount punishing airstrikes, and a few thousand more American troops to advise the Afghans. In an October 19 talk at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, CIA Director Mike Pompeo said the United States wants to give the Taliban “zero hope” that they can win on the battlefield. “To do that, you cannot have a safe haven in Pakistan,” he said.

While in Pakistan, Tillerson made it clear to the leadership that Pakistan needs to take action not only against the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network, but  also other militant groups that threaten regional peace and stability, a demand echoed on October 28 by Acting Assistant Secretary of State Ambassador Alice Wells in a press briefing on his visit. She said that Washington wanted Pakistan to show the same commitment it had made to defeat militant groups domestically to those threatening Afghanistan or India. Tillerson, she said, “stressed the importance of Pakistan moving quickly to demonstrate good faith and efforts to use its influence to create the conditions that will get the Taliban to the negotiating table.”

The refrain at all official levels is that the administration had warned Pakistan that if it failed to take “decisive” actions against terrorist groups, the United States would “adjust” its tactics and strategies to achieve the objective in a “different way.” All these pronouncements seem to carry a not too subtle message to Pakistan: you cannot refuse to cooperate and hope to have a relationship with the United States.

Pakistan’s Response

Pakistanis have been understandably unhappy about these developments, beginning with the Trump speech that unleashed a wave of anger and criticism at the perceived American insensitivity to all of the sacrifices and cooperation the country has given to the United States in the war on terrorism. Trump speech has been found insulting in rhetoric and dangerous in substance for subordinating Pakistan’s interests to those of India and Afghanistan, which Pakistan sees as threats to its security.

Pakistani leaders and officials have also insisted, and continue to do so in the ongoing high level diplomatic engagements, that there are no Taliban sanctuaries in the country, and that Pakistan cannot be a scapegoat for the war’s failure, and would not let this war be fought on Pakistan soil.

The Way Ahead

As the dust settles, there should be a period of reflection, and there will be. Pakistan has to make up its mind whether it wants to contribute to Afghanistan stability or instability. Though Pakistan benefits and suffers from what happens in Afghanistan, Pakistan has failed to cash in on its support for the Taliban. And now it may be too late, as Pakistan is left with few good options except to drop them. The problem is that Washington is not making it any easier for Pakistan to do so.

Pakistan’s cooperation will depend on its assessment of what is the end game from the American perspective. But what is the overall American objective and strategy? There is no clarity. Without any knowledge of that and of what is in there for Islamabad, Pakistan will understandably be reluctant to cooperate.

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Pakistan also wants coordinated action against the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, the Jamaatul Ahrar, and the Balochistan Liberation Army, which operate from safe havens in Afghanistan. But both Kabul and Washington have been unresponsive. And so far, Washington has pushed all the wrong buttons like sanctioning India’s hegemonic ambitions in the region and attacking the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which may prompt Pakistan to hedge.

To add to Pakistan’s quandary, China may be facing a similar dilemma. Though it still remains invested in Afghanistan’s stability, if the United States remains silent about its end game in Afghanistan and has outlined a strategy of encirclement of China as suggested by Tillerson’s CSIS speech, then China too may have to hedge. Both General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis  have recently been speaking in Congressional hearings against the “One Belt One Road” (OBOR) initiative and its flagship project, CPEC. The theme is that China, through its regional partnerships, is trying to limit U.S. power projection and weaken Washington’s position in the Indo-Pacific.

Washington’s Confused Strategy

Washington is trying to address a mélange of geopolitical, regional, and national security challenges, along with the failing Afghanistan war, without an overarching strategy or grand design. It may thus end up as a zero-sum exercise. One objective or another is going to give or lose out in pursuit of one particular interest. Washington may think that threatening CPEC to weaken Pakistan ‘s lifeline to undermine its leverage, and to weaken China’s alternatives to deal with the projection of American power in the Indian Ocean, might be a smart move but it is more likely to backfire. It is also worth noting that it will likely draw China and Pakistan even closer.

If Pakistan is lost to Washington or isolated, the United States loses too. The safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear assets remains important to the United States, as does non-proliferation. In case of strained relationship with Pakistan, the United States loses communication with Pakistan on the nuclear issue. It also loses influence on Pakistan’s ongoing efforts to deal with extremism and militant outfits. Not to mention Washington loses air and ground lines of communication, and intelligence sharing on dealing with transnational terror groups like al-Qaeda and Islamic State. Finally, there will be no peace in Afghanistan without Pakistan’s help.

Both Pakistan and the United States have to adjust their policies to the extent that their core interests are not harmed if not satisfied. Each of them needs to acknowledge its wrong policies and not ask the other to compensate for its own failures, and treat the relationship with the other on its own merit and in its totality. The fact is there are some U.S. interests in Pakistan that are not related to or transcend America’s regional and geopolitical interests. A good relationship with Pakistan can serve several good purposes for the United States. And Pakistan too has to come to the same realization.

Touqir Hussain, a former Ambassador of Pakistan and Diplomatic Adviser to the Prime Minister, is an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University