US President Trump’s national security strategy is finally out. While it does not contain many surprises, it is still an important document as it gives an authoritative description of the Trump administration’s assessment of threats to US national security and how the US plans to counter them. The strategy claims to be based on “principled realism”, that is, a combination of a realistic view of the world with the principles which characterize the American polity. It recognizes the central role of national power in a competitive world as it tries to promote US national interests while remaining faithful to “American principles” of respect for life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, accountability of power enshrined in the US constitution establishing a democratic form of government, and the rule of law. It declares, “Our task is to ensure that American military superiority endures, and, in combination with other elements of national power, is ready to protect Americans against sophisticated challenges to national security”.
The document identifies China and Russia as posing a challenge to American power, influence, and interests as they attempt to “erode American security and prosperity”. North Korea and Iran are accused of trying “to destabilize regions, threaten Americans and our allies, brutalize their own people”. In addition, the strategy considers “transnational threat groups, from jihadist terrorists to transnational criminal organizations” as serious threats to the US security. In the face of these perceived threats, the new US national security strategy would focus on four main tasks. Firstly, it would take steps to protect the American people, the homeland, and the American way of life. Among other things, it would “pursue threats to their source so that jihadist terrorists are stopped before they reach American borders”. Secondly, it would promote American prosperity by rejuvenating the US economy and insisting upon fair and reciprocal economic relationships to address trade imbalances. Thirdly, it will aim to preserve peace through strength and ensure that “regions of the world are not dominated by one power”. Fourthly, it would try to advance American influence on the premise that “a world that supports American interests and reflects our values makes America more secure and prosperous”.
What is of special interest from Pakistan’s point of view is the approach that the new US national security strategy recommends for various regions. To start with, the US would “prevent unfavorable shifts in the Indo-Pacific, Europe, and the Middle East”. In the Indo-Pacific region which is of direct interest to Pakistan, the strategy document takes note of the challenge posed by a rapidly rising China and expresses the US resolve to protect its own interests and the interests of its allies and partners such as Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand. In Northeast Asia, America would pursue the goal of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and preserve the nuclear no-proliferation regime. In the context of the US policy of containment of China, the Trump administration would continue the existing US policy of expanding its “defense and security cooperation with India, a Major Defense Partner of the United States, and support India’s growing relationships (read power and influence) throughout the region”. The US would also support India’s leadership role in the Indian Ocean security and throughout the broader Indo-Pacific region.
The new strategy takes note of the continued threats to the US “from transnational terrorists and militants operating from within Pakistan. The prospect for an Indo-Pakistani military conflict that could lead to a nuclear exchange remains a key concern requiring consistent diplomatic attention”. Washington would press Pakistan to intensify its counter-terrorism efforts and “take decisive action against militant and terrorist groups operating from its soil”. It would also encourage Pakistan to continue demonstrating that it is a responsible steward of its nuclear assets. As for Afghanistan, the US would support the Afghan government in its fight against “the Taliban, al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other terrorists”. This support would aim to convince the Taliban that they cannot win on the battlefield, thus, paving the way for diplomatic efforts to achieve enduring peace in Afghanistan.
The highlights of the Trump administration’s national security policy given above reaffirm in many ways the essential features of the US policy towards Asia and South Asia that was being pursued by earlier administrations. There would, of course, be a greater emphasis on the build-up of the US military might than was the case during the Obama administration as reflected by the sharply increased US military budget of $700 billion for the fiscal year 2017-18. But the US policy of containment of China would continue as would the US policy of building up India as a counter-weight to China, particularly in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region. As for Pakistan, it would remain under the US pressure for its alleged support to the Taliban and other militant groups operating from its soil for terrorist activities in Afghanistan and India. It is likely that if Islamabad does not fall in line with the US demands, Washington would place increasing restrictions on its development and military assistance to Pakistan. If the situation deteriorates further, the possibility of other punitive actions cannot be ruled out.
US Vice President’s recent statement in Kabul charging that “For too long, Pakistan has provided safe haven to the Taliban and many terrorist organizations, but those days are over” and warning that President Trump “had put Pakistan on notice”, has elicited responses from both the Pakistan Foreign Office and DG ISPR. But this is not enough. The harsh statement by the US Vice President calls for a thorough review of our internal and external policies so as to come out with an agreed course of action after in-depth discussions among all the state institutions concerned.
In the face of the new US national security strategy, it is imperative that we maintain national unity and cohesive functioning of the various state institutions, including civil and military as well as executive, legislature, and judiciary, within their constitutional limits. None of them has the monopoly of wisdom, integrity, or patriotism. No institution can be or should be allowed to assume the role of a state within a state. None should be allowed to transgress its constitutional limits to encroach upon the functions of the others. Unfortunately, some institutions of the state have violated these red lines in the past to generate the current climate of political instability, the last thing that the country needs at this critical moment in its history.
Secondly, our state institutions should focus on a realistic assessment of the current internal and external situation confronting the nation with a view to developing viable policy options for the consideration of the government with the aim to safeguard the country’s security, promote its economic well-being, and protect its cultural identity and values. Emotional responses to complex situations and issues should be avoided. This in the ultimate analysis is the question of governance where unfortunately all our state institutions are lacking and need to improve their performance. Finally, we should squarely face the reality that in the years to come there is going to be an inexorable process of the convergence of the strategic interests of the US and India, which carries serious negative implications for Pakistan’s security and economic prosperity. We cannot simply wish away this trend. Our effort instead should be to take into account this trend adequately in the formulation of our policies in various fields.