Washington has ratcheted up its pressure on Islamabad. President Trump’s highly offensive tweet of 1 January, accusing Pakistan of “lies and deceit” and for having provided haven to the terrorists in Afghanistan, was soon followed by the suspension of the US security assistance to Pakistan. The decision was not entirely unanticipated against the background of the Trump administration’s new Afghanistan policy with familiar accusations against Pakistan of not doing enough for helping the US in Afghanistan and the visits of several high-level US dignitaries including Secretaries of State and Defense to Islamabad urging Pakistan to do more. It would be recalled that the US new Afghanistan policy had warned Islamabad that its partnership with Pakistan could not survive its “harboring of militants and terrorists who target US service members and officials.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in a subsequent remark at a press conference had indicated that if the US demands were not meant, Pakistan might be subjected to US economic and military sanctions. Trump’s national security strategy again expressed the US expectation that Pakistan would “take decisive action against militant and terrorist groups operating from its soil.” Finally, if there was any doubt about the US intentions, it should have been removed by the 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”.
So President Trump’s tweet and the subsequent US decision to suspend the US security assistance to Pakistan should not have come as a surprise to our government. The fact of the matter is that even apart from Afghanistan, Pakistan and the US are on a different strategic course. As the US gets closer to India strategically to counterbalance the expansion of China’s power and influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region, Pakistan and China would have no choice but to seek closer strategic partnership with each other to safeguard their vital security interests. Pakistan’s foreign policy and security planners must prepare the country for the consequences of this inexorable and irreversible course of strategic divergence on which the US and Pakistan are currently embarked.
Unfortunately, the impression that one gets occasionally is that of a leadership in Pakistan, including both its political and military segments, which is reluctant to face this reality and, with an ostrich-like attitude, keeps on hoping to revive the close strategic partnership between Pakistan and the US which occasionally prevailed during the Cold War era. Needless to say that such an attitude would be extremely detrimental to the nation’s security and economic well-being. A realistic approach would require us to maintain friendly relations with the US, still the most powerful country in the world, without attaching high expectations to this relationship from the strategic point of view. For this purpose, we should expand areas of convergence of the national interests of the two countries while minimizing the impact of the areas of divergence by identifying common ground on which the two nations should concentrate to their mutual benefit. On the whole, we should try to reduce our economic and military dependence on the US as much as possible to expand our maneuverability in foreign policy and security planning.
Afghanistan has turned into an area of serious policy differences between Pakistan and the US. These differences, if not handled properly, will have extremely negative repercussions on Pakistan-US relations as should be evident by now. There is no doubt that the US has committed serious blunders in its management of the situation in Afghanistan. First and foremost, the US in the aftermath of 9/11 imposed a government of its own choice on Afghanistan, virtually disenfranchising the Pashtuns who constituted about half the population of the country. The resistance to such a government was inevitable. The Taliban skillfully exploited this discontent to their advantage. The diversion of the US political and military resources to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 provided the Taliban the space to intensify their struggle against the US-propped Kabul regime and gradually expand the area under their control. In essence, therefore, the armed conflict in Afghanistan is a civil war between the Pashtuns and the non-Pashtuns in which the US is seen as a supporter of the latter instead of an honest broker in the middle. So its ability to steer the Afghan armed conflict to a peaceful closure has been seriously compromised.
Secondly, Washington has mostly gone for a military solution of the Afghan civil war instead of focusing on a political settlement between the warring parties in the interest of a durable peace. There have been occasional references to the need for a political solution in Afghanistan in American policy statements, but in practice, Washington has paid insufficient attention to it. Even President Trump’s Afghanistan policy announced last year makes only a cursory reference to the need for a political settlement in the country. The emphasis instead is on the military action to restore peace in Afghanistan. Essentially, Trump’s Afghanistan policy is more of the same which, as the historical evidence shows, is unlikely to succeed.
The same approach can be seen in the article written by General Stan McChrystal, former commander of ISAF in Afghanistan, under the title “Staying the Course in Afghanistan” which appeared in the Foreign Affairs magazine issue of November/December 2017. It recommends the continuation of the current US approach in dealing with Afghanistan even though, as the article admits, this would amount to “insanity,” that is, “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” Significantly, General Stan McChrystal does not rule out US military operations in Pakistan in pursuit of the policy recommended by him. The abysmal ignorance of the situation in Afghanistan and the essentials of strategy exhibited in this article would be laughable but for the fact that it comes from a former ISAF commander with a supposedly high reputation in the US military. For the same reasons, the policy adopted by the Trump administration is destined to fail.
What should Pakistan do in the face of the relentless American demands concerning Afghanistan? Firstly, we must tell the American frankly that we are no longer prepared to wreck peace in our country for the sake of their misconceived war in Afghanistan, security assistance or no security assistance. Pakistan has already suffered enough in such a futile effort and cannot afford to do it any further. Secondly, Pakistan should extend full support to all efforts for a political settlement in Afghanistan through an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led peace process. Ideally, the political settlement should lead to a power-sharing formula between the Taliban and the non-Taliban forces. However, that is a decision to be made by the Afghan people themselves and not by the outsiders. Thirdly, we must tell any Afghan militants, who may be on our soil, to fight their battles in Afghanistan and not use our territory as a staging ground for their operations in Afghanistan. Fourthly, we must take resolute and indiscriminate action for the elimination of the different varieties of militants on our territory. There should not be any ambiguities in our action against them and our declared policy against terrorism in any form or manifestation. Above all, we must strengthen internal unity and promote the cohesive functioning of the different institutions of the state within their constitutional limits. Internal unity and self-reliance should be the cardinal principles of our state policy.
The writer is a retired ambassador and the president of the Lahore Council for World Affairs.