More than seven months into the White House, US President Donald Trump on Tuesday finally unveiled his long-awaited and much-talked-about strategy for Afghanistan and South Asia.
As expected, President Trump questioned Pakistan’s role in dealing with certain militant outfits, particularly the Afghan Taliban and its affiliated group, the Haqqani network.
“We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organisations, the Taliban and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond,” Trump said in his 30-minute-long address. He then went on to say “that approach will have to change, and change immediately.”
Trump was not the first American president to have accused Pakistan of ‘double play’. Bush and Obama had often made similar complaints against a country which was declared a frontline state against terrorism and a major non-Nato ally.
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This time, however, the difference is that Trump has clearly given an ultimatum to Pakistan to take a decisive action or face the consequences. Although details are yet to be available, the Trump administration may use diplomatic, economic and military options to get the desired results from Pakistan.
As part of the new strategy, the Trump administration brought in India in the equation. So unlike his predecessors who were wary of giving New Delhi a formal role in Afghanistan because of its implications vis-a-vis Pakistan, Trump is clearly intending to use India as leverage over Islamabad.
Will this new US strategy work in Pakistan’s case? Officials privately claim there is nothing new in Trump’s strategy.
However, the new element, one official pointed out, was effort by the US administration to hand India a formal role in the intricate Afghan affairs. Pakistan has long opposed such a role given its suspicion that India would use the Afghan territory to create instability.
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The official insisted that the American president’s backing of India to play a role in the economic development of Afghanistan did not make sense as India was not an economic power that could contribute to the prosperity of the war-torn country.
“How can a country which is struggling to deal with abject poverty at home help others?” the official questioned.
Even American analysts and retired military officials, who have served in the region, are doubtful.
Washington-based expert on South Asian affairs Michael Kugelman said Trump offered no new solution to the 16-year-old conflict in Afghanistan.
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“I didn’t hear Trump describe, at all, how he intends to get Pakistan’s policies to change. A threat with no apparent follow-up,” he reacted to the Trump speech.
“I can’t imagine Pakistan changing its ways, no matter what punishments or incentives Trump throw its way. Its interests are immutable,” he added.
Major General (retd) Mark MacCarley also cautioned that getting tough with Pakistan might achieve some results for the US in short term but the consequences would be huge in the long run.
The American general referred to the fact that Pakistan still provides the key supply route to American forces in Afghanistan. In case of any extreme step, Pakistan can block that crucial supply line and that would be a ‘nightmare for us’.
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Pakistan had once blocked the crucial supply line for the US-led Nato forces in 2011 in the wake of killing of its 24 soldiers by US forces near the Pak-Afghan border at Salala check post.
Mindful of the possible backlash, a detailed statement issued by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did not talk of any coercive measures against Pakistan.
Unlike Trump’s speech, Tillerson insisted that the new integrated strategy for the US approach to South Asia would require diplomatically engaging Pakistan, Afghanistan and India to create conditions for stability in the region.
“Our new strategy breaks from previous approaches that set artificial calendar-based deadlines. We are making clear to the Taliban that they will not win on the battlefield. The Taliban have a path to peace and political legitimacy through a negotiated political settlement to end the war,” Tillerson added.
Trump tough talk unlikely to move Pakistan
Although Trump said little about peace efforts, his top foreign policy chief said the US “stand ready to support peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban without preconditions”.
“We look to the international community, particularly Afghanistan’s neighbours, to join us in supporting an Afghan peace process,” he said.
Tillerson also did not use harsh and tough words as his president did in his speech.
“Pakistan has suffered greatly from terrorism and can be an important partner in our shared goals of peace and stability in the region. We look to Pakistan to take decisive action against militant groups based in Pakistan that are a threat to the region. It is vital to US interests that Afghanistan and Pakistan prevent terrorist sanctuaries.”
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Just hours after the Trump speech, US Ambassador David Hales met Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif to brief him about the new Afghan strategy.
According to a statement issued by the Foreign Office, Ambassador Hale conveyed that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson looked forward to meeting the foreign minister in the next few days to have an in-depth discussion on the state of play in the bilateral relationship as well as the new US policy on South Asia.
The foreign minister reiterated Pakistan’s perspective and desire for peace and stability in Afghanistan.
Highlighting Pakistan’s immense sacrifices in the enduring fight against terrorism, Asif underlined Pakistan’s continued desire to work with the international community to eliminate the menace of terrorism.
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American counterterrorism experts agree Pakistan doesn’t want to destabilise Afghanistan. Seth Jones, a former senior Pentagon official and now director of RAND Corporation’s International Security and Defense Policy Center, sees room for a more stable future with a better balance of power.
“Pakistan certainly doesn’t want Afghanistan to collapse, nor do they want an Afghan government that is strongly and closely tied to New Delhi,” he said.
“I think what they’d like is a relatively stable Afghanistan, and one whose government – and some of the tribal and sub-tribal actors near the border – have at least decent relations with Islamabad.”