New US policy on Pakistan is old, and has just one wild card: Trump himself
The US has consistently hid behind the idea that Pakistan is the biggest obstacle to peace in Afghanistan. This notion is narrow, deeply flawed, and creates internal contradictions—and failures—in US policy in the region.
Speaking at Fort Myer on Monday about his Afghanistan policy, US President Donald Trump has put Pakistan on notice. While acknowledging that Pakistan has been a valued partner in the past, he has, like his predecessor, Barack Obama, accused Pakistan of harbouring ‘criminals and terrorists’ and said “our new strategy [will] change the approach and how to deal with Pakistan.”
In 2009, President Barack Obama said much the same. So, what’s new?
Trump. Trump is the new feature in this policy, not because he has found an Open Sesame to the problem of Afghanistan and, by extension, the region, but because he will make a wicked problem wickeder through an internally incoherent policy.
For a long time the thinking in some circles in Washington has been to accuse Pakistan for US failures in Afghanistan. This line of argument is also trotted out by Indian and Afghan analysts. If Pakistan reins in the Taliban and the Haqqanis, Afghanistan’s political and security landscape will become salubrious for the kind of peace and prosperity that the US and Kabul envisages.
That’s a sham. Pakistan is just one regional player. There are others: the US itself, Iran, Russia, China and India. At least three, Iran, Russia and China, consider the Taliban political actors. Iran and Russia also fund and arm certain Taliban groups, a fact known to and stated by US officials.
But let’s keep that aside and see the options the US can use to coerce Pakistan.
US leverage over Pakistan is on the wane
Two are upfront: aid and coalition support fund. Both are down to a trickle. In fact, Islamabad as well as the General Headquarters (Pakistan Army) have told multiple US civil and military delegations that Pakistan is not interested in US aid or military support. There are no big-ticket items involved since the US Congress scuttled the financing for the sale of Block C&D F-16s. The US has already exhausted any leverage there.
The other possibility is withdrawing the major non-NATO ally status. In real terms, given the state of relations since 2011, this does not mean anything, not even in a symbolic sense.
What else? This is where the coercive possibilities come in. There’s been much debate in a months-long review of how to deal with Pakistan.
There are two schools of thought: one, which is the driver of the current policy, rejects Pakistan’s strategic concerns and advocates arm-twisting Pakistan to force Islamabad to fall in step; the other believes that putting Pakistan in the doghouse will make matters worse and the US must be sympathetic to Pakistan’s perceptions while impressing upon Islamabad its concerns and find a balance grounded in quid pro quos.
The coercion, therefore, is likely to be graduated. In his speech, Trump said that he is lifting restrictions on how field commanders must operate in terms of the challenges they face. This means giving US commanders a free hand in determining how to identify and neutralise threats. Read in conjunction with Trump’s statement that Pakistan harbours ‘terrorists and criminals’ on its soil, the US could begin drone attacks outside of the air bands in which Pakistani governments have secretly been allowing US drones to operate. This could mean attacks in settled areas and cities: Peshawar, Bannu, Kohat, Quetta, Kuchlak, or even Karachi.
If this does not have the desired result, the US could begin taking measures for what Dr Moeed Yusuf has called ‘soft diplomatic isolation’. Such measures could include sanctioning individuals and entities, especially military and intelligence officials (that would mean restricted travel, freezing of assets and even arrests on foreign soils), putting the squeeze by withdrawing support from international financial institutions, pushing a resolution through the United Nations Security Council, among other things.
Given the upcoming bleak economic picture painted by independent economists, most pointing to a looming balance of payment crisis, Pakistan, according to them, will need to go back to the International Monetary Fund. That’s another area where Pakistan could be squeezed.
The final and most extreme measure, as advocated by some in the US, could be to declare Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism. That would be a clear break in a long-troubled relationship. What happens next will draw the battle lines.
Trump might make things worse
Whether any or all of this will give the US the ‘win’ Trump thinks he can still pocket is of course an illusion. It won’t because it can’t.
What’s deeply ironic is that coercing and trying to isolate Pakistan will only worsen the problem. Pakistan, in conjunction with its regional allies, could either take a tougher position by aligning its interests with theirs or, worst-case scenario, get destabilised. Neither development is savoury for policymakers in Washington, or for the region. China already knows that the US is propping India up as a countervailing force. That doesn’t go down well with Beijing.
Hopefully, it will not come to that. While Pakistan’s official response will be formulated after the National Security Committee meeting, chaired by the prime minister, the initial reaction, in seeking to work with the US has, nonetheless, rejected the allegations trotted out by Trump. The statement also references Jammu and Kashmir as the core dispute thereby pointing to tense Pakistan-India relations as a major source of instability in the region.
The expectation seems to be that Trump’s speech was not the policy but its salient features. The policy will have its nuances and multiple tools. Rex Tillerson wants to engage Pakistan to discuss the play. That’s where the two sides could figure out what’s possible and what’s not. But there’s the wild card, Trump, who is now being played by McMaster and the hardliners in the White House. If they prevail, the region gets a problem that will make the current situation look like a teddy bear’s picnic.
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