Holding our breath to do more

All eyes on Trump's new plan for Afghanistan

Holding our breath to do more
Anxiety in Islamabad seems to be growing as the clock ticks closer to the completion of the Trump Administration’s review of the policy on Afghanistan, expected mid-July and which will set the direction for the US strategy on dealing with its longest war and approach to the region.

Pakistan’s worries are discernible from a range of statements that have been given over the past week or so. During a security meeting, Chief of Army Staff Gen. Qamar Bajwa, whose institution has the most crucial role when it comes to Pakistan’s policy on Afghanistan, regretted the persistent ‘do more’ demand and said that it was now time for others, particularly Afghanistan, to do more. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who visited the Foreign Office for a review session, underscored the need for “continued partnership with the US” and directed diplomats to come up with fresh initiatives on Afghanistan.

Common strands in these responses are, however, the reaffirmation of the commitment to continuing counter-terrorism efforts and emphasis on the importance of dialogue for a political settlement of the Afghan conflict.
The initial indications are that President Trump would take a tougher line. It is being speculated that the non-Nato ally status for Pakistan could be revoked, the aid package may be substantially cut, and drone attacks inside Pakistan could be intensified

One thing quite evident from these statements and the messaging during this week’s visit of a US Senate delegation led by Armed Services Committee Chairman Senator John McCain is that Pakistan has tried to vocally express its position and concerns while the Pentagon finalizes strategic options for President Trump on Afghanistan and the region. Luckily, the timing of the Senate delegation’s trip helped Pakistan win some key endorsements for its counter-terrorism efforts, which otherwise get criticized a lot in Washington.

No one is exactly sure about the shape US policy on Afghanistan and the region would ultimately take (until the much-awaited review is completed) other than that some 4,000 to 5,000 more American troops would be brought to Afghanistan to break the stalemate in the war. With regards to Pakistan, the initial indications are that President Trump would take a tougher line, particularly on the issue of alleged sanctuaries, which are said to be used by the Taliban to sustain the fight in Afghanistan. It is being speculated that the non-Nato ally status for Pakistan could be revoked, the aid package may be substantially cut, and drone attacks inside Pakistan could be intensified.

The concerns about an expected harsh policy were amplified after the unusually harsh India-US joint statement on Pakistan issued at the conclusion of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Washington. Some see the statement as the US growing closer to the Indian view on Pakistan and terrorism and if that is so, it is certain to be reflected in the new policy as well. The FO’s strong-worded reaction to the Indo-US statement revealed the worries in Islamabad.

In a related development, after the defense ministers meeting of the trans-Atlantic alliance a few days ago, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, while replying to a question on Pakistan, said: “It is absolutely unacceptable that a country provides sanctuary to terrorist groups which are responsible for terrorist attacks inside another country … NATO and many NATO allies and especially the United States have addressed several times the importance of also addressing the sanctuaries of terrorist groups, the Taliban, the Al Qaeda network in Pakistan.”

Michael Kugelman, a South Asia scholar at The Wilson Center, believes that it would be premature to assume that Trump will take a harder line toward Pakistan. “Certainly there’s reason to believe Trump will put down the carrots and wield more sticks, given Trump’s principled view that terror needs to be eliminated anywhere. I can’t imagine Trump has any patience for Pakistan’s good militants/bad militants policy. Still, as I understand it, the Pakistan policy review underway in the White House features a number of conciliatory and diplomatic options—they’re not all punitive,” he says.

Prof (Dr) Zafar Nawaz Jaspal, who teaches international relations at Quaid-e-Azam University, also expects turbulence in Pak-US ties. He maintains: “The trends in the regional strategic environment underline the continuity of bumpiness in Pak-US relations in the future. Neither Pakistan’s sacrifices against terrorism mantra nor visiting Senators McCain and Elizabeth Warren’s cosmetic statements can ensure sustainable constructive engagement between Islamabad and Washington.”

Any US action meant to punish Pakistan or force a change in its approach on dealing with militancy could have serious implications not only for Pakistan’s international standing and bilateral relations, but also for Pakistan’s internal security. The US too, it is presumed, understands the limits of any coercive policy. There is no other way for the US, but to rely on Pakistan for its logistic support while militarily surging in Afghanistan. Secondly, the importance of Pakistan’s role in any prospective settlement in Afghanistan is undeniable. Inevitably a balance would have to be struck. For this Pakistan and the US have to increase their engagement for a better understanding of each other’s perspective. Unluckily not much of that is happening right now. “Pakistan needs to re-double its diplomatic and political interaction with the US in order to better understand each other’s concerns and expectations and address them,” Amb (retd) Aziz Ahmed Khan suggests. “There is ample scope for this relationship to grow stronger for mutual benefit.”

A major problem arising here is that President Trump has given his generals a freer hand to decide the future strategy on Afghanistan, which in itself is a dangerous scenario even though GHQ has traditionally felt more comfortable dealing with the Pentagon. Equally worrisome is the weakening role of the State Department on Afghanistan. Following the abolition of the office of the Special Representative on Afghanistan and Pakistan, there are hardly any experienced hands at the top in the State Department to deal with complex issues associated with the two countries.

Amb (retd) Ashraf Jehangir Qazi blames the situation on the absence of a long-term perspective.

“Foreign policy is not about technical fixes. It is about fundamentals. They are all out of synch in Pakistan. Reasons? Many. Mainly no long-term policy perspective. Everything is survival, short term and personal.”

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad and can be reached at mamoonarubab@gmail.com and @bokhari_mr