Tough-on-Pakistan duo added to Trump’s team

New secretary of state, security advisor are fond of war, regime change as solution

Tough-on-Pakistan duo added to Trump’s team
President Trump has spent much of the last two weeks cleaning out his national security team of almost all the so-called moderates, those generally labeled “the adults in the room”. This is the small group of individuals with experience in and knowledge of national security issues who it was thought (or hoped) would constrain Trump’s impulsive, ill-informed, belligerent and bellicose instincts on foreign and security policy and issues. Only General Mattis, the Secretary of Defense is left, and I suspect that he will soon feel very lonely as the sole voice of reason on national security in what many believe is an unhinged administration.

On Tuesday, March 13, two days after I had written my previous article, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was fired by tweet. He was not a good Secretary of State, maybe the second worst in history, nor do I think he had much influence with Trump, but he espoused moderate, and fact-based views on important issues, e.g. using diplomacy to deal with North Korea’s growing nuclear capability. His major sin, certainly in Trump’s view, was his hard-edged rhetoric on the Russian interference in the 2016 US election. His replacement, which Trump named in the same tweet, is CIA Director Mike Pompeo, a former very conservative Tea Party Republican Congressman.
Trump replaced National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. HR McMaster with John Bolton, a fiery arch-conservative, who could be described as never having met a war he didn't like

National Security Advisor

Just over a week later, Trump fired his National Security Advisor, Lt. General HR McMaster and announced his replacement, John Bolton, a fiery arch-conservative, who could be described as never having met a war he didn’t like. Bolton served in the George W. Bush administration in the State Department and for about 15 months as the US Ambassador to the UN. He was an avid supporter of the invasion of Iraq and still claims, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that it was a good idea. While in government, he also was a strong voice in the Bush Administration for the decision in 2002 to kill the 1994 Framework Agreement with North Korea, arguing that instead of using diplomacy to try to put it back together, the US should try to isolate North Korea and push for regime change. And he has recently been writing against the Nuclear Agreement with Iran and for a preemptive strike on North Korea.

Bolton evidently believes the way to deal with any threat is through regime change. It has been said that “for Bolton, there are few international problems where war is not the answer.” (Ironically, Bolton has admitted publicly that he joined the National Guard to avoid serving in the Vietnam War.)

Strangely enough, it is the departure of Tillerson, and the ascendance of Pompeo to cabinet status, that may have more effect in Afghanistan and Pakistan than the arrival of the bomb-thrower Bolton. For all his love of war (from afar at least), a perusal of Bolton’s views via Google shows little on the struggle in Afghanistan. He is preoccupied with threats to the homeland it seems, and strongly of the belief that there is no solution to any and all, except through regime change. This is not to say that he will gainsay what I perceive to be still in US policy a tilt toward a military solution.

Secretary of State

But first Pompeo. His public record on Afghanistan and Pakistan is there for all to see. In Congress he constantly supported efforts to increase troop levels and opposed President Obama’s intentions to draw down even further the level (which did not happen in the end). At the CIA, he has broadened the CIA’s role in the war by overseeing a change in Agency policy that now sends small special operations groups, some on loan from the military, to work with the Afghan National Army to hunt and kill higher level Taliban fighters. This is a change from its previous almost singular focus on Al Qaeda and ISIS operatives in Afghanistan.

Also, Pompeo is a fan of drone strikes, and as CIA Director wanted increased authority to use them against the Taliban. It is not impossible that in his zeal to ratchet up the pressure on Pakistan, drone strikes on the Taliban in the tribal areas might also increase. There is little doubt he will support the overall military strategy, which I believe is still to weaken the Taliban by military action of all kinds to the point that they sue for peace and come to the negotiation table, an unequal participant in a weakened and fragile condition. I remain very skeptical that this will succeed.

Today’s news, however, brings reports that the debate still rages within the administration on whether to take more drastic measures against Pakistan to make the outcome of this strategy more likely to succeed. As readers know, there is a strong belief that the military strategy cannot succeed if Pakistan still maintains its hands-off approach to restraining the Haqqani Network and blocking transit in and out of Afghanistan by that group and other parts of the Taliban.

Some of these reports indicate that for a decade or so US Ambassadors have been told that Pakistan has no faith that the US will stay the course in Afghanistan, and for its own national security reasons must hedge against the likelihood that the US will give up and depart before the job is finished. (Our history in Pakistan only reinforces that opinion.)

There are those in the Administration who believe that more drastic measures would move the needle on Pakistani policy toward the cooperation the US is seeking. Such drastic measures might include a permanent cutoff of all military assistance, which would put a much more severe strain on Pakistan’s budget and/or diminish its military capabilities over time, and visa bans on individuals of the Pakistan government and military. These are the kind of targeted sanctions the US now uses against Russia and North Korea. This would probably go hand-in-hand with revoking Pakistan’s status as a major non-NATO ally. I have heard hardliners also advocate declaring Pakistan a state supporter of terrorism. The point here is that the addition of Pompeo and Bolton to Trump’s national security inner council only adds to the voices there that will not shrink from such extreme measures.

Such measures, which I assume would be implemented ad seriatim so as to tighten the pressure over time, would only make things much worse in my view. The US would still be fighting an unwinnable war in Afghanistan and would have made a permanent foe of its former ally, Pakistan. It is time for both sides to wake up and start talking reality to each other.

While the present US strategy in Afghanistan is certain to fail in the long run, I suspect that at present there remains a determination to finish the job it came to do, i.e. eliminate the possibility of a transnational extremist organization with the will and the means to strike in the West, sheltering in the ungoverned spaces of Afghanistan. Why not think big and inclusively instead of small and vindictively? Why not a joint peace proposal: one in which the US puts on the table its willingness to negotiate a departure schedule, in the context of a broader political agreement among all the parties to the conflict; and which Pakistan accepts as a sign that the US will stay until an agreement is reached and then puts its shoulder to the process of getting the Taliban to the peace table. A NATO departure schedule negotiation on the table will attract the Taliban and no military action could. This would mean that both sides are really serious about a political solution to the Afghan war.

The author is a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC, and a former US diplomat who was Ambassador to Pakistan and Bangladesh

The writer is a former career diplomat who, among other positions, was ambassador to Bangladesh and to Pakistan.