Uncle Sam’s big stick

Trump settled for publicly scolding Pakistan

Uncle Sam’s big stick
President Donald Trump has finally emerged with his strategy to reverse the tide of war in Afghanistan and it appears that in his diagnosis Pakistan is the main culprit in the enduring conflict.

He has clearly put Pakistan on notice and conveyed to its leadership that it is no longer business as usual in Pakistan-US ties. The relationship will, therefore, become more transactional than before and be more results-driven. “We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we’re fighting,” said Trump. “That will have to change, and that will change immediately. No partnership can survive a country harboring militants and terrorists who target US service members and officials. It is time for Pakistan to demonstrate its commitment to civilization, order and peace.”

This was perhaps the strongest message, at least from the Pakistani perspective, in a speech that otherwise hardly contained any new points. What was perhaps new was the element of unpredictability and surprise. But it made no mention of timelines, troop ceilings, defined benchmarks and a freer hand for the field commanders. Even the catchphrase, ‘conditions-based approach’, that has been used to define the new strategy has already been used by Trump’s predecessor, Obama.
One point most people have not talked about much so far is President Trump's decision to once again raise the bogey of "nuclear weapons and materials" falling into the hands of terrorists

There has been emphasis on the need for the Afghan government to reform itself, but the US president undoubtedly reserved the most scathing criticism for Pakistan. He was reluctant to commit to the 16-year-old war that has already cost America over 2,400 lives, including 11 combat deaths this year, and almost a trillion dollars. Before arriving in the White House, Trump was deeply skeptical about the war and had wanted the US to pull out of Afghanistan. But he had to change his mind after his generals made him realize that serious security threats persisted. Hard-won gains could not be further lost in Afghanistan where the Taliban insurgency was making steady inroads. The consequences of a precipitous withdrawal could be horrendous.

The purpose of the new policy, therefore, is not to win the war, which Americans fully realize in unwinnable, but to create conditions that suit it for what Trump described as an “honourable and enduring outcome”. In his scheme of things that can be achieved is eradicating terrorist safe havens, be they in Pakistan or Afghanistan, and preventing them from re-emerging so that a message could be sent to the terrorists that, “they have nowhere to hide, that no place is beyond the reach of American might and American arms. Retribution will be fast and powerful.”

The allegation that Pakistan is not eradicating terrorist sanctuaries is in no way new. It has been leveled all throughout the 16-year war and with greater frequency in the past few years. As a result, Pakistan lost the F-16 deal and its money that the US had to reimburse under the Coalition Support Fund program was seized. Pakistan’s response remained limited to denials and claims that its operations targeted terrorists of all shades and colours. The explanations were not accepted, but Islamabad took that in its stride, bothering little about the lost F-16s and the millions of our own dollars withheld by the Americans. Pakistan’s attitude, at that moment in time, had left even the Americans bewildered.
The purpose of the new policy, therefore, is not to win the war, which Americans fully realize in unwinnable, but to create conditions that suit it for what Trump described as an "honourable and enduring outcome"

With Trump though, the landscape has changed. He is known for wielding a big stick. Pakistani officials belatedly realized that the issue was getting out of hand. They recently took a few actions: condemning the Taliban attack on US soldiers, working on improving relations with Afghanistan, reaffirming their commitment to cooperating with the US-led Resolute Support Mission and Afghan security forces and above all offering ground checks in areas and at a timing of their choosing. That came a little too late though. Nevertheless, many believe that it helped Pakistan earn another chance despite the censure.

Beltway insiders say Trump was bent on punishing Pakistan for its “insincerity”, but settled for “publicly scolding” it and linking any future engagement to how it (Pakistan) moved to address those concerns. The ball, they say, is in Pakistan’s court.

The American expectation, to quote the State Department, is that Pakistan takes “decisive action” against what they say are terrorist groups on its soil that pose a threat to the “region”. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has listed the consequences in case of non-compliance: squelching aid and military assistance, revoking the non-NATO alliance partnership, and what he described as “going to attack terrorists wherever they live”. All this was known before, but has been officially said for the first time by no less than a secretary of state.

One point most people have not talked about much so far is President Trump’s decision to once again raise the bogey of “nuclear weapons and materials” falling into the hands of terrorists. Many in Islamabad would have interpreted Trump’s words as a renewal of concerns about the security of Pakistani assets. There is also the veiled threat of diplomatic isolation. Secretary Tillerson refers to the US strategy on North Korea and says: “We have to enlarge the circle of interest and bring others to—into the effort as well, and that’s what we’ll be doing with Pakistan as well.” It was useful that the Chinese made a statement of support to pre-empt American coercion, but more may be needed on that front.

Threats aside, closely parsing the statements from the State Department and Tillerson shows that America is also offering a deal vis-à-vis Pakistan’s security concerns that could have been preventing a fuller cooperation. Sanctuaries in Afghanistan have been mentioned and India has been encouraged to take steps for rapprochement with Pakistan and address the “reasons why they deal with these unstable elements inside their own country”.

There is also the offer to help Pakistan protect itself from the blowback of going after the Taliban and Haqqani Network. “We are ready to work with them protect themselves against these terrorist organizations,” Tillerson said. Recall that during the last year of the Obama presidency, the Pakistan government had been telling the American interlocutors that they could not start a new war in their country and the only way they could take action against the Taliban and Haqqani Network is if there were a joint strategy and cooperation. This is not to say that what the US is saying is reality. Pakistan is justified when it denounces the American allegations as a “false narrative”. But, it still has a job at hand to clear up American doubts and misgivings.

The National Security Committee will be delving into the US policy and in all likelihood will be working on a strategy before this article goes into print. Pakistan finds itself perhaps, for all intents and purposes, in the same situation as it found itself when Richard Armitage had threatened to bomb Pakistan “back to the Stone Age” and President Bush had told the world: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists”.

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