NIAS Strategic Forecast # 21, January 2018
Trump’s New Year tweet on 01 January 2018 was almost an ultimatum asking Pakistan to take certain actions towards Afghanistan and the militants groups in the Af-Pak region.
The American threat of “do more” is not a new one; during the last few years, one could see a trend and a déjà vu in the US threats towards Pakistan and the response by the latter. The Trump administration issued a similar threat a few months earlier, followed by attempting to work with Pakistan “one last time”.
However, the threat issued by Trump through a tweet seems to be different. There was a follow up action to the Trump threat; the US administration announced suspending the aid across-the-board.
How far will the US administration go this time in forcing Pakistan to do more? What has changed? And what has not? And what is not likely to?
US-Pak Relations: What has changed?
Status Quo as Business as Usual
The bilateral relations between the US and Pakistan during the recent years has been more of déjà vu. One could identify a pattern in the bilateral relations - the US demanding and issuing with “do more” threats followed by few drone attacks, Pakistan taking a few actions on the ground or providing access to a few militant groups, a reduction in tensions between the two countries, and a high profile militant attack in Afghanistan upsetting the bilateral relations – leading to a new cycle of demands and actions.
Pakistan’s policy makers have been engaging with the American threats – with seriousness at times and ignoring the same on most occasions. The US, despite its demands not getting addressed have returned in the past to work with Pakistan. This has been the status quo of bilateral relations between the US and Pakistan since 2001.
Trump seems to be attempting to change the above, by applying pressure on Pakistan. The policy makers in Pakistan seems to consider this as an usual American pressure tactic. For the US, the status quo is perhaps not acceptable.
An American President willing to call off Pakistan’s Bluff
Trump is no ordinary American President. Both - the Americans and rest of the World, during the last few months have been witnessing a different White House.
Trump seems to tweet and act on impulse. Trump’s mind seems to be on an autopilot mode and has a Tweet button on its reach that could be pushed at any time. And it started the new round on the 01 January: “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies and deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools.”
He followed it with a threat and an ultimatum: “They (Pakistan) give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more.” This President seems to be willing to pursue the options that the US have in materialising the threats. Freezing the aid is the first step. But, how far will he really go, and be willing to escalate further?
The US Presidents always had options; the previous ones didn’t use it beyond a point. For example, the following political, economic and military options were always available for the American Presidents in executing the US threats vis-à-vis Pakistan: freezing the economic and military aid, increasing the drone attacks and expanding its geographic coverage within Pakistan, increasing the pressure on the Af-Pak border, politically pressurizing Pakistan with an intention to declare the latter a State that sponsors terrorism, formally reducing the political ties from a major Non-NATO ally status etc.
The Obama administration did occasionally pursue certain actions covering the above; for example, the killing of Osama bin Laden, the Salala attack across the Af-Pak border, and an increased drone attacks but primarily concentrating on the FATA region except for an occasional attack on Balochistan. However, Obama did not issue threats as Trump has done in the last few months. His administration issued few threats, followed by a hectic US-Pak engagement, with the latter taking few actions. Obama did not threaten Pakistan directly, as Trump has done.
American Perceptions towards Pakistan
A major change – relates to the general perception in the US about Pakistan, which transcends the White House. Until last decade, Pakistan had influential backers in the Pentagon, US State Department, Think Tanks and the academic community. Today, there is a substantial change across the board in the US about the American perception of Pakistan. What Trump tweeted about Pakistan – lies and being deceitful, is shared by many in the US.
A section in the US also used to believe in the “TINA” factor – “there is no alternative” other than working with Pakistan. Nuclear weapons, the threat of it falling into the wrong heads, take over of the State by the radicals, strategic location – a combination of the above were used to justify the American reliance on Pakistan. Despite knowing about the “costs” of engaging Pakistan, the above was pushed as “benefits”. Islamabad and Rawalpindi were well aware of the above, and used it. Rather abused it.
This seems to have changed now. From the Pentagon to the media, there is a change across the board on how the Americans view Pakistan today, and value the utility of Islamabad in the future security calculations. Even those individuals and institutions, including the Pakistani diaspora in the US – seems to be cautious in projecting the original discourse of working with Islamabad and be sensitive to its concerns.
Today, the “costs” of cooperation seems to outweigh the “benefits” of US overlooking Pakistan’s double game.
China, CPEC and Pakistan’s Confidence
Pakistan also has changed now. There is a new confidence, thanks to Pak-China relations and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
The perceived political support from China, and the expectation that the CPEC will result in Islamabad reducing its dependence on the US has given a new outlook. Pakistan believes that China will come to its support at the global level politically, if the US decides to pursue a political action in isolating Pakistan. For example, if the US is likely to work through the UN in condemning Pakistan and its linkages with the terrorist groups, there is a predominant belief that China will come to its aid.
Second, the CPEC is seen as a huge economic opportunity. If the US has to reduce its aid, there is no need to worry; this is based on a logic that the CPEC projects will sustain the investment scenario and also attract other countries to pitch in further. Besides the investments, the expectation is that the CPEC operationalization will make Pakistan a regional hub and increase Pakistan’s economic independence.
The above confidence, makes a section in Pakistan to ignore the American threats. This section, wants Pakistan to take care of its own strategic interests and not be unduly worried about the American threats. If the Americans want to freeze their aid, so be it. The argument is – Pakistan is no more dependent on the American aid.
What hasn’t changed? And what is unlikely to?
Support to the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network
Pakistan’s persistence in supporting the Haqqani network, and the domestic debate within Pakistan about the bilateral relations with the US – both has not changed.
Though, there have been few domestic inputs and internal voices about the need to reorient Pakistan’s strategy towards Afghanistan, concerning implementation, Pakistan’s approach remains the same.
Domestic Rhetoric against the US and Anti-American Sentiments
More importantly, the domestic rhetoric about the US and the anti-American sentiments within Pakistan has not changed. In fact, it has worsened further. The US is seen as an ungrateful ally and a “master” than a “friend”.
The American accusation on Pakistan not doing more in Afghanistan is projected as an excuse and a failure of the former in Kabul. One could repeatedly see the public rhetoric in Pakistan that the US demanding Islamabad to do more is to hide its own failure in Afghanistan.
Disowning the War on Terrorism
Pakistan has been projecting the blowback as a sacrifice, and has started to believe in it – creating and sustaining a new narrative within. Instead of owning the war on terrorism, Pakistan has externalised it and projected it as fighting someone else’s war and suffering for it. Repeatedly, one could see this narrative within Pakistan that also calls for severing the ties with the US. An oft-repeated question has been: Why should Pakistan fight the American war in Afghanistan?
As a result of the above, there is no introspection about Pakistan’s involvement in Afghanistan during the last few decades. Is the problem in Af-Pak only a result of the CIA, and Pakistan is more a collateral? Latter seems to believe in the same.
Pakistan’s Geography: Not just transit
For the American war machinery, Pakistan’s geography is significant. It goes through the Karachi port and across Peshawar and Quetta. Once the war in Afghanistan is over, it has to return through the same way. This is not likely to change.
Pakistan is well aware of the American reliance on Pakistan. Referred as the NATO supply route, it goes primarily through Pakistan’s ports and provinces. Pakistan provided the same support during the 1980s, and also since 2001.
The support is not only transit – but also capacity to reach Kabul. In the 1980s, the Deep State in Pakistan also provided contacts and information in Afghanistan to the CIA to wage the Cold War against the Soviet troops. Since 2001, the Deep State has been selectively providing information to neutralize al Qaeda and Taliban targets not only in Afghanistan, but also in Pakistan.
US has two options, but has been unwilling to look beyond Pakistan - Iran through Chahbahar and the northern route. During the last years of Obama’s administration, the US administration was trying to reach out to Tehran. Geographically, Iran could be the much-needed option for the US to reach Afghanistan. Politically as well; Tehran has less ambitions in Kabul than Islamabad. Though Iran has also hosted millions of Afghan refugees in its soil, it has not abused them as Pakistan has. Nor has Iran attempted to intervene in Afghanistan and use a group as its proxy, as Pakistan has been using the Haqqani network.
The northern route through Central Asia is a second option for the US. Though not as easy as the southern route through Iran and Chahbahar, it is still an option. Unfortunately the American-Russian relation has never been strong enough to operationalize this route.
Trump has closed the Iran option for the US in Afghanistan. Given the Russian sensitivities in Central Asian and US-Russia relations, the northern route will never become practical. As a result, Pakistan’s geography is likely to remain a strategic tool for Islamabad.
Pakistan’s Afghan Policy
Over the last few decades, Pakistan’s primary objective in Afghanistan has remained the same – to have a friendly regime in Kabul, if not a puppet one. Subsequent strategies – supporting the Mujahideen, providing axis to the CIA against the Soviet troops, propping up the Taliban and sustaining it, reluctance to give up the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network, negating Indian influence in Afghanistan – all these are aimed at achieving Pakistan’s primary objective – a friendly regime in Kabul. This Afghan pursuit is not likely to change.
Despite domestic demands for a review of Pakistan’s Afghan policy, it has remained the same. A friendly and pliable regime in Kabul will be pursued as an unstated “existential problem” of Pakistan. This will also continue to remain so, given the contemporary situation and developments.
The reasons for this Afghan focus in Pakistan’s foreign policy have been well known; it has a combination of domestic, cross-Durand and foreign policy fears. Referred as the “Pashtun” factor in Af-Pak relations, Islamabad has been conscious of the larger Pashtun sentiment across the Durand Line. The fact that Afghanistan has not formally recognised the Durand Line further adds to Pakistan’s Kabul concerns. In the recent years, India has increased its influence in Kabul; operationalization of Chabahar port in Iran and the proposed northern route will further reduce Afghan dependence on Pakistan.
Islamabad do have other options in Kabul, than pursuing a negative strategy through the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network. No other country share the strength that Islamabad possesses – number of Afghans grown up and their cultural and economic roots in Pakistan. Another option is to cultivate Afghan leadership through long terms societal contacts instead of imposing them through a military and militant strategy.
Pakistan has been reluctant to pursue alternative strategies in strengthening its influence in Afghanistan. This is also not likely to change, given who controls Pakistan’s Afghan policy. (This aspect is discussed subsequently). The above plays a major role in US-Pak relations, as the former is less likely to appreciate the latter’s concerns. There was a period after 2001, during which the US was hesitant to allow India to play a larger role in Afghanistan. Under Trump, this has changed substantially as one could be seen in Trump’s August speech on Afghanistan and the subsequent National Security Strategy of the US.
With US willing to provide a larger space to India in Afghanistan, Pakistan is likely to vehemently guard its own space through its proxies – the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network. This will directly contradict what the successive US Presidents have been demanding since George Bush. This is precisely what Trump underlined in his August 2017 speech: “Pakistan has also sheltered the same organizations that try every single day to kill our people. We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting. But that will have to change, and that will change immediately. No partnership can survive a country’s harboring of militants and terrorists who target U.S. service members and officials. It is time for Pakistan to demonstrate its commitment to civilization, order, and to peace.”
While Trump would want Pakistan to change its strategy towards the militant groups, Pakistan will see them as its trump, and continue supporting them. This will increase American frustrations and exacerbate US-Pakistan relations further.
Deep State’s hold over Foreign Policy
Pakistan’s decision-making process on Afghanistan has always been with the Establishment than with the Parliament. It is likely to remain with the Deep State, than Pakistan’s political leadership. This has been a problem in Pakistan reorienting its Afghan policy. And it will remain so.
Both the Parliament and Pakistan’s External Ministry have been trying to take charge of the foreign policy, but in vain. Both the institutions, would like to broadbase the US-Pak relations, beyond military and security issues. Both the Institutions will require the American support to do it; a courageous attempt was made during Zardari’s period through Hussain Huqqani, when the latter was the Ambassador to the US. Referred as the “memo gate” the attempt backfired badly for political leadership. The Deep State will never allow such initiatives that would reduce their influence over foreign policy – not only vis-à-vis the US, but also India, Afghanistan and now China as well.
The US will also have to share the blame for the above, as its policies required shortcuts instead of broad basing the relationship. The US during the 1980s and during the last decade preferred to work with the military Establishment, paying lip service to democracy and institutions.
The more the Deep State wants to undermine the political leadership from playing a lead role in foreign policy decision making, the more the distance will be between the US and Pakistan.
The above essay is published as NIAS Strategic Forecast. Click here for the PDF version: http://isssp.in/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/1801-NSF21-Suba-USPak-2.pdf. An edited version of the above essay was published first in the Rising Kashmir on 15 January 2018.