The USA’s drawing away from Pakistan, is like its disengagement from Pakistan in the late 1980s onwards, though the dedication of the Pakistani establishment to the US alliance makes it seem Pakistan is being punished for something heroic.
Another factor is US President Donald Trump. To what extent does he represent the Washington consensus, and to what extent is he to be ignored as a loudmouth temporarily resident in the White House? The Washington consensus has been silent over Pakistan’s misdeeds, because it has been needed. During the 1980s, it was for a proxy war with Afghanistan against the USSR. Since 1999, it was again for Afghanistan, only this time a US occupation.
President Trump does represent Middle America, which needs a scapegoat for the hiccups in Afghanistan, which looks increasingly likely to lead to defeat. Middle America also contributes to those sections of the US establishment, in the military and the Foreign Service, who are professionally invested in success in Afghanistan. These persons do not accept that they have failed. To do so would be to accept they deserve career setbacks. They prefer blaming Pakistan.
Pakistan is both easily-understood target and key ally. Pakistan was under military rule when it helped the USA by its support for the anti-Soviet Afghan resistance. When the USA itself invaded, it was helped by another military regime, which owed something to the previous support. It was during the first War that the Pakistan intelligence agencies developed the links with the Afghan resistance that turned into the Taliban. That the Taliban’s anti-US resistance had a support network in the Tribal Agencies was a badly kept secret, which Pakistan balanced by letting the USA conduct drone strikes within Pakistani territory. Then came the Salalah attacks, when US gunship helicopters attacked Pakistani border posts in 2012, which led to part-suspension of transit rights.
Another no-brainer was that Trump would offend Pakistan. He was willing to offend key US allies, so Pakistan was at risk. There were two other factors: US friendship with India, and Trump’s distaste for China. Trump’s attempts to build on the Indian alliance have been marked, especially since the BJP took office there. The present Prime Minister was previously the Chief Minister of his native Gujrat. It is no coincidence that Gujrati migrants have gone into a big way into the motel business, which has given them a presence all over the USA. These migrants tend to oppose the left-leaning politics of the Congress, and thus are often strong BJP supporters.
However, what really got the Pakistani establishment riled was how the USA, the occupying power, was giving India a role in Afghanistan. This role was stressed in the very same speech outlining the Trump Administration’s Af-Pak policy calling on Pakistan to stop harbouring terrorists. Trump’s notorious tweet thus contained nothing new, merely confirming that speech.
Then there is the China factor. America’s Pivot East made China much more important than ever. Trump views the One Belt, One Road Initiative with suspicion, as linking Europe with China; instead of the interest with which the USA should view any cross-Pacific route linking its West Coast to Europe. Pakistan was bound to fall under his disapproval because of its closeness to China. Particularly irritating was how Pakistan held up China to the USA as a replacement as a backer.
Perhaps the last straw was Pakistan’s part in the quadrilateral mechanism for the security of Afghanistan,which includes Russia, Afghanistan, China and Pakistan, but excluding the USA and India. That prompted Trump to proclaim something that the USA had so far ignored: that the Taliban were backed by Pakistan. This brought into the open the establishment’s policy of running with the hares and hunting with the hounds. The efforts by Pakistan, when US Secretary of State Rex Tillotson, and US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis came, do not seem to have convinced Trump.
The establishment seems determined to keep in with the USA, while keeping the militants on its side. Pakistan’s official response to the tweet was to hold a National Security Council meeting, which made resistance noises. At the same time, the State Bank prohibited donations to the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Jamaatud Dawa and the Falah Insaniat Foundation. Recently, Lashkar chief Hafiz Saeed had been released from the house arrest he had been placed. Hafiz Saeed is an irritant for the USA, but primarily for India. Indeed, the USA’s ire against him is not because he has harmed it, but because of Indian diplomacy. The ire it has expressed has been against the Haqqani Network, which has not been affected since the murder of Nasiruddin Haqqani in Islamabad. Though the Network is an ISI asset, there has been no attempt to mainstream it by inclusion within the political system, as with Hafiz Saeed, whose proposed political party, the Awami Muslim League, has not been registered by the Election Commission on the Interior Ministry’s request.
The Pakistani establishment should be worried by the difficulty with the USA, not so much because it gives a lot of aid, as beause of the influence it has in the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the IMF, not to mention its influence over other important bilateral donors to Pakistan, like Japan and the European countries. The threat of being bombed back into the Stone Age is less potent than that of being starved of the funds that the establishment has long used to maintain its lifestyle. Though China has set up an alternate to the World Bank,it may not be able to fill the funding gap for Pakistan. This crisis has come at a time when Pakistan’s national finances are worsened by a foreign trade deficit combined with massive debt repayments.The traditional saviours of Pakistan in such situations, the UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are presently toeing the US line, and are unlikely to help.
The chances of a US attack are remote. The US armed forces are already overstretched. Likelier is an attack in combination with India, which is spoiling for a fight. The Afghan military is probably not in any shape even to support US forces, but they may well use the country as a launchpad against targets within Pakistan.
Even if no US attack with Indian support materialises, the very possibility should reveal the bankrupcy of a policy based on seeking US Fvour. The US presence in Afghanistan and Iraq have made this difficult, but the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has made it impossible. The combination of riots in Iran and the apparently purely domestic crisis in Balochistan can be seen as manoeuvres leading ultimately to the creation of an indepent Greater Ballochistan, something the USA would like, now that it would be inclined to believe the talk of Quetta Shura of the Taliban.
The Pakistani power elite will probably not escape the siren-song of the US alliance. The people of Pakistan would like to do so, but do not really know how. Their only hope would be to trust the Ummah as a whole, rather than try to replace one superpower with another. It is a time for out-of-the-box thinking, not applying borrowed formulae to problems with those from whom the borrowing has been done.
The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The