At this particular point in time, the US is engaging Pakistan rather wholesomely. Two top US functionaries are about to set foot in Islamabad. Is it a continuation of the age-old good cop (State Department) - bad cop (Pentagon, CIA) routine or is it truly a paradigm shift to a more realistic policy/strategy in South Asia than hither-to-fore?

This new US approach to South Asia appears essentially regional in nature and could see the US engaging Afghanistan, Pakistan and India simultaneously. However, regardless of how the US handles Pakistan, India’s primacy in this regional approach will remain unchallenged and supreme.

This US regional policy for South Asia is likely to have two major prongs, India-Pakistan and Pakistan-Afghanistan. It is likely to have two main objectives in South Asia where Pakistan is directly involved albeit in diametrically opposite roles. First, the US would require Pakistan to ensure the TTA/HN Combine’s presence on the negotiating table; failing which to launch solo/ joint/coordinated military operations with US forces to eliminate it as a viable terrorist entity in the Afghan-Pakistan Region (APR). Second, the US will apparently want to obviate military conflicts between India and Pakistan, their conflict ridden issues notwithstanding. This might presuppose an improbable US mediatory effort between the two belligerents without which this US policy objective would have scant chances of manifestation, much less success.

The US is apparently creating the right operational environment for Pakistan to take on the TTA/HN militarily. It has started attacking the TTP/ Jammat Ur Ahraar/IS elements in the Nangarhar and Paktia provinces of Afghanistan which border the Kurram Agency, meeting one of Pakistan’s major national security concerns. There are (un)confirmed reports that Omar Khalid Khurasani the leader of the Jamaat Ur Ahraar and Omar Mansour (mastermind of APS Peshawar massacre) may have been killed in US drone strikes. Pakistan would want similar strikes in Nuristan and Kunar as well to target Mullah Fazlullah and his coterie of terrorists, too. By eliminating these Indian proxies (TTP/Jamaat Ur Ahraar/IS), however, the US will have masterfully maneuvered itself into an advantageous position vis a vis Pakistan. As a veritable quid pro quo, it would then ask Pakistan to either bring the TTA/HN onto the negotiating table or join the US in joint/coordinated military operations against their “safe havens” ostensibly on Pakistan soil. Else, the US would take on the task itself. In either case, the war on terror will have come back on to Pakistani soil - an apparent fait accompli that Pakistan must prevent at all costs! This renewed war on terror will singularly endanger Pakistan’s territorial integrity, the CPEC/OBOR initiatives and their positive impact on Pakistan’s future economy. Its timing and the sequence of events thereof will have severe strategic connotations for Pakistan. This renewed war on terror must under no circumstances precede the completion of the major initiatives of the CPEC/OBOR in Pakistan - else it will leave them all totally destroyed in its wake

Such an operational environment will, however, meet US national interests in more ways than one. It would tackle the TTA/HN problem as well as challenge China’s potential emergence as a competing global economic power by (in)directly threatening to disrupt, delay and destroy the CPEC/OBOR initiative altogether!

The other US policy objective of cooling temperatures between India and Pakistan would require far more astute diplomacy. The issues between India and Pakistan are almost intractable and would require enormous expenditure in political and diplomatic capital on both (maybe all three) sides to come to practical solutions. India abhors third party mediation between itself and Pakistan therefore the US will probably stop short of it. It might however nudge both belligerents towards talks or some meaningless proclamations of some form of potential conflict avoidance/resolution etc.

Mr Rex Tillerson’s diplomatic skills will be on test as never before. He would probably want to engineer a major paradigm shift in India’s regional policies towards Pakistan and China. Again, two diametrically opposite roles will be demanded of India - “peace with Pakistan and increasing belligerence with China”. Ideally, it would serve US interests no end were India to move away from being fanatically Pakistan-centric only and to instead become strongly China-centric in intent, word and deed. Therefore, the US drive to build up India’s national ego through platitudes like “strategic partners for the 21st century”, lavishing and thrusting “greatness” onto it, even calling it a member of the global elite club. General Jim Mattis’ statement that the two largest democracies in the world ought to have the two strongest militaries too, must have sounded like music to Indian strategists. The US is aware that close to 80-90% of India’s military forces are either deployed or poised against nuclear Pakistan. This restricts India’s ability to challenge China militarily in pursuit of US interests in the Asian region at large. India is practically pegged and limited to the subcontinent in its obsessive fixation on Pakistan and is thus unable to unshackle itself to play any meaningful role at the regional/extra regional levels to secure US interests. Mr Tillerson would like to remedy this situation. This explains too, the US’ strategic compulsion to keep Pakistan and its formidable military engaged on its western frontiers with Afghanistan and away from its eastern borders - allowing India relative freedom of action elsewhere in Asia.

South Asia is thus at the confluence of a myriad of conflicting and contrasting national interests of global powers like the US and China and regional nuclear powers like India and Pakistan. Afghanistan is an essential part of most diplomacy under way in the region. It remains to be seen how the US Secretary of State manages to pursue US interests in the APR and the larger region without losing Pakistan and by making India truly China-centric. Pakistan will need to safeguard her vital national interests by preventing the restart of the war on terror on her soil, safeguarding the CPEC/OBOR initiatives and by retaining her relationships with both the US and China.

Time for hard decisions, astute and deft statecraft, sublime diplomacy and a relentless single-minded pursuit of Pakistan’s national interests, is nigh!


The author is a retired Brigadier and a faculty member of NUST (NIPCONS).