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Speaking of Trump's new year tweet, only a direct action on Pak territory will make a real impression

Vivek Katju | Updated on: 3 January 2018, 17:56 IST
(Arya Sharma/Catch News)

President Donald Trump’s angry new year tweet against Pakistani duplicity is an expression of extreme frustration and rage. It also reflects America’s continuing inability to control Pakistani conduct.

However, America must primarily blame itself for allowing the situation to reach this sorry pass. And, this was not through ignorance as it knew all along, and fully, what Pakistan has been up to in Afghanistan. Thus, if the Pakistanis played US Presidents for fools, these leaders, who held the most powerful office in the world, willingly wore caps and bells.

At this point, it would be useful to step back to examine how all this happened –

The Americans originally had no problems with the Taliban which became Pakistan’s instrument soon after its formation in 1994. For America, it was an ‘authentic’ and thus a kosher Afghan group. Problems arose when the Taliban developed a connection with Osama bin Ladin after he relocated in 1996 from Sudan to Afghanistan.

Osama had launched terrorist attacks against American interests and these culminated in 9/11. After that America demanded that the Taliban hand Osama over to them. When it refused to do so, America went to war against it using Pakistan as an important base. The Taliban was defeated and ousted from Kabul in November 2001.

A large number of the Taliban including the leadership crossed over to Pakistan where they found shelter and assistance. Al-Qaeda leaders and members also escaped to Pakistan. The Americans were focussed on capturing Al-Qaeda personnel and looked to Pakistan for locating them. It is at this stage that they made a Faustian bargain which has inevitably led to the present situation.

Pakistan agreed to help on the Al-Qaeda front but asked that America look the other way on the Taliban. Not only did America agree it also willingly agreed to give Pakistan large sums of money as part of the deal.

Pakistan did not keep to its part of the bargain on the Al-Qaeda; it only handed over low-level operatives, taking no initiative on the leadership. However, it had got the latitude it wanted to re-invigorate the Taliban on its territory.

As the Taliban consolidated they began to attack American forces in Afghanistan. Pakistan did nothing to stop the Taliban action. Strangely, despite losing soldiers, the Americans did not effectively demand that Pakistan rein in the Taliban and destroy their sanctuaries. Clearly, American strategists thought that the loss of soldiers – and 2,500 died – was a necessary price to pay in the fight against the Al-Qaeda.

Thus, instead of finishing off the Taliban, America tried to bring about a reconciliation between the group and the Afghan government. This has failed for Pakistan does not want a peaceful Afghanistan unless it acquires a veto over the Afghan government’s India policy. It believes that only a full hard-line Afghan government exclusively of the Taliban can deliver on this front.

The key to the stabilisation of Afghanistan lies in making Pakistan give up on the Taliban. That will finish off its sanctuaries and effectively eliminate, over a relatively short period, its fighting abilities.

Previous American Presidents have not succeeded in making Pakistan change its approach on the Taliban for that involved taking decisive steps. They looked to other and softer options, worried that harsh anti-Pakistan measures may destabilise a country with nuclear weapons and technology and where Islamic fundamentalism has become entrenched.

They were also worried that hard action may drive Pakistan fully into the Chinese embrace especially as anti-American feelings have become rampant there.

Will Trump succeed where his predecessors failed?

On 21 August 2017 Trump announced his Afghanistan and South Asia policy. It had three significant aspects.

One: the US would not set artificial deadlines to its troops' withdrawal from Afghanistan. This was significant for it signalled an intent to defang the Taliban.

Two: Pakistan was put on notice to close down Taliban safe-havens or suffer unspecified consequences.

Three: India’s enhanced role in Afghanistan, especially in the economic sector, was sought. This was a real red rag for Pakistan which has always wanted to eliminate it.

Trump’s policy constitutes a departure but at its heart lies an open question. Will America crack the whip on Pakistan or confine itself only to making angry statements?

In these months, senior US civil and military officials have been warning Pakistan to close Taliban safe havens. On its part, Pakistan began to engage America after an initial show of anger and defiance. Through this process, Pakistan has sought to put the onus of Afghanistan’s continuing troubles either on Kabul or Washington. It has also accused Kabul of fomenting terrorism in Pakistan.

Significantly, the present Pakistani-American dialogue was going the way of the two countries’ engagements under Obama and Bush. This gave Pakistan comfort and confidence that despite high American rhetoric it would not take action to really hurt Pakistan.

Trump’s tweet and the decision to hold a part of US military assistance is certainly a sign of American impatience. In itself, the action on holding back on some military aid will not cause any great concern though the question what, if anything, will Trump do next will raise some anxiety levels.

Pakistan’s National Security Council met on 2 January. It found his accusations “completely incomprehensible” because the interaction between Pakistani and American officials was moving in a “positive” direction. Once again Pakistan also blamed the Afghans and America for the mess in its neighbour.

China has come out in Pakistan’s support. This is not surprising in view of the direction in which Sino-Pak relations are moving especially after the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). It is unlikely though that China will take any concrete step should America move decisively against Pakistan to curb its international financial activities or on the ground. Only a concrete step, such as direct action on Pakistani territory by American troops, make a real impression on Pakistan.

As the old saying goes, “hard words break no bones”. Unless some bones are broken the Pakistani tail will continue to wag the American dog. After all, it has done so for almost seven decades.

Edited by Jhinuk Sen

First published: 3 January 2018, 17:56 IST