Donald Trump’s approach to Pakistan

Shakir Wazir

The US president Donald Trump announced the new South Asian Strategy on August, 21, 2017 wherein, he chastised Pakistan for providing safe havens to the very terrorists US is fighting. This might have flabbergasted most of the Pakistanis who would have done a double take on their TV screens and headlines of the newspapers that how the US’ frontline ally in the War on Terror could be shunned? But their relation has seen similar ruptures in the past as well. Their interaction can be conveniently divided into three epochs, each one characterized by intense engagement and abrupt estrangement up to the extent of placing sanctions! Each country has tried to influence the other with its own peculiar demands.

According to some analysts, the US-Pakistan relations can be divided into three significant interactions. Each of the three interactions has suffered cracks due to the variable importance of Pakistan in the eyes of U.S. The first two fall in the Cold War era (from the mid-1950s to mid-1960s; the second was during the Afghan Jihad in the 1980s) and the third one dates back to September 11, 2001, where under G.W. Bush, the Pakistani participation in the War on Terror ushered in a new era of cooperation.

The first engagement started in the Cold War especially after Korean War when US was looking for allies to contain communism, while Pakistan was deeply concerned about the power disparity in the Subcontinent with respect to India and was earnestly seeking ways to redress it.

The heightened security concerns and need for economic development forced Pakistan to reach out to the United States. Pakistan’s geo-strategic location worked as a linchpin for American designs and Pakistan got membership of the Southeast Asian treaty (SEATO) in 1954. The US strengthened Pakistan’s military capabilities and potential for economic growth. But in doing so the US encouraged the undemocratic tendencies and helped Pakistan Army to raise its national profile. With connivance of the US, the Pakistan Army with alliance of pro-Western conservative forces including Islamists dominated the country’s politics. The Pakistan’s religious profile at the time did little to US’ concern but in fact US saw it a measure of internal stability and a bulwark against communism. The first period of estrangement started in 1960’s when the US didn’t consider the Indian threat to Pakistan to be credible or real. Instead, US helped India to balance China’s growing power in post Sino-India conflict. The Pakistan Army, obsessed with Indian growing power, felt compelled to tilt toward China. This compelled Pakistan formally left SEATO in 1973.

In the second phase of engagement, during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the US saw Pakistan’s help critical in its efforts to expel the Soviets from Afghanistan. The US desire to disintegrate the then USSR and contain communism overshadowed any other concerns that the US had toward Pakistan, such as those related to democracy and nuclear proliferation. To cope with the Afghan irredentist claims, to funnel Afghan nationalist sentiments into pan Islamic sentiments and to have international legitimacy for the country’s isolated military regime, Pakistan allied itself with America to wage jihad against the former Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The military dictator Zia-Ul-Haq’s regime allowed Pakistan to be used as a sanctuary, training ground, and staging area during the war. The CIA and the ISI collaborated in instigating an insurgency against the Soviet military.

This allowed Pakistan receive billions of dollars in economic and military assistance. However, it was no longer after the USSR disintegrated that the Pressler Amendment put bar on most of its economic and military aid and suspended delivery of F-16 fighter aircraft ordered and paid by Pakistan. Although the engagement between Pakistan and US in this period made a historic contribution to the end of the Cold War but the radicalism spawned by the Afghan jihad and co-opted by Pakistan would not rock the region but radiate far beyond. After the Russian retreat, the US left Afghanistan in the lurch to warring factions of the so-called mujahedeen (holy war fighters) and the weak Afghan government propped up by the Russia. The US turned its blind eye on infighting going on in Afghanistan to provide space for the mujahedeen to erase all remnants of communism. The Afghan government accused Pakistan of supporting mujahedeen to facilitate their entry to the throne of Kabul. Pakistan has consistently denied the allegations. At last, the Taliban, whose leaders and cadres emerged from the then mujahedeen, overran the Afghan capital and established a rule of their own. Pakistan was the first to recognize the Taliban rule in Afghanistan. Taliban were accused of housing international terrorists groups, such as Al-Qaida, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and Pakistan based Kashmir mujahedeen etc. This arrangement was unacceptable to US which threaten to label Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Furthermore, after the deadly and abhorrent incidents of September 11, 2001, the two countries found a chance to cozy up again in US led war in Afghanistan. Pakistan had no option other than to cooperate under the threat of dire consequences if didn’t comply with the terms of US. Responding to the American demarche to choose sides between the US and the Taliban, president Musharraf promptly extended all his support to America in the war against terrorism. Pakistan dejectedly opted for fateful decision to side with America while jeopardizing its own strategic investment for many years. Musharraf’s decision was motivated by the objective of pursuing the country’s security, economic growth, the need to safeguard its “strategic nuclear and missile assets”, the Kashmir cause, and his own power consolidation and prolongation.

Although Pakistan received billions of dollars in economic and military assistance but it lost lives of more than 50 thousands innocent civilians and thousands of military personnel. Pakistan hoped that its cooperation in war on terror would ensure its say in Afghanistan’s future political setup and peaceful resolution of Kashmir issue but it proved to be mere illusions.

Rather, Washington pressurized Islamabad to abandon its support for freedom fighters in Kashmir and to declare them as terrorist organizations, while banning their operations at its soil as well.

The joint venture kept the two intact for some years. There were significant breakthroughs in manhunt of Al-Qaida and some Taliban leaders. Pakistan military carried out number of military operations in FATA. Sometimes the US lauded the role played by Pakistan Army in fight against terrorism and the sacrifices rendered by it, and at other times the operations were termed as perfunctory vis-à-vis Haqqani group, which itself was considered the most dreadful and veritable arm of ISI, who mounted tough resistance against ISAF forces in Afghanistan. The relationship between Pakistan and the US strained increasingly by differences over Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan. The US officials chided Pakistan’s military and intelligence agency as either harboring or going easy on militants even before the Navy SEALs tracked down and killed Osama bin Laden in the garrison city of Abbottabad, Pakistan in 2011. In turn, Pakistani officials have cited Indian influence as a cause of insecurity and instability in Afghanistan. Pakistan has expressed its deep concerns over the Indian support of hostile political regime in Kabul and funding of militants, who use Afghanistan as a base to launch cross border terrorist attacks inside Pakistan.

According to Hudson institute’s policy recommendations prepared by Hussain Haqqani (former Pakistan’s ambassador to US) and Lisa Curtis (Trump’s South Asian Advisor), the US engagement with Pakistan must be based on a realistic appraisal of Pakistan’s policies, aspirations, and worldview. Also, it must be acknowledged that Pakistan is unlikely to change its current policies through inducements alone. Some of the policy recommendations laid down by the Hudson institute included: avoiding to view and portray Pakistan as an ally and at the same time to keep an option for Pakistan to be an ally of the United States in future if it came up with the conditions set for it, to prioritize engagement with civilian government of Pakistan and continue humanitarian assistance programs administered by Pakistan’s civilian authorities, to enforce counterterrorism conditions on US military aid and reimbursements to Pakistan, keeping the option of using drones to target Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan, to designate Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism in case it fails to end support for Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network, and to seek avoiding a complete breakdown in US-Pakistan relations.

The recent stalemate has heightened tensions between the two countries after Trump accused Pakistan of harboring “agents of chaos” during announcement of new policy on Afghanistan and South Asia. A US Army general and the commander of the US forces in Afghanistan, John Nicholson, said that he had seen no change in Pakistan’s support for militants so far, despite Donald Trump taking a tougher line against Pakistan. CIA Director Mike Pompeo warned Pakistan that if it didn’t eliminate the alleged safe havens inside its territory, the US would act to destroy them. The recent visit of US Secretary of Defence James Mattis to Pakistan where he met PM Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and COAS Qamar Javed Bajwa, was aimed to woo Pakistan to redouble its efforts against terrorists and to find a common ground with Pakistan. In response, the COAS of Pakistan, General Qamar Javed Bajwa expressed Pakistani concerns regarding the Indian use of Afghan soil.

Generally, Pakistanis have learnt that the US has been threatening Pakistan from long times and nothing different is going to happen this time either. The mercurial president, Donald Trump, who sometimes veer off script of his speech, may designate Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism. From the recent developments it seems that Trump is following the policy put forward by the Hudson institute. Some may argue that Pakistan does not need America for economic and military assistance because China is providing Pakistan with economic and military assistance. It must be kept in mind that China has very poor history in bailouts. The need of the hour is that Pakistan should revise its foreign policy regarding Afghanistan and India and should unequivocally communicate to USA. Otherwise there is no silver bullet to the problems Pakistan is facing in dealing with the superpower, USA.