Trump’s New Year tweet on Pakistan was followed with an execution of the warning – freezing of the American aid to the latter.
The American threat of “do more” is not a new one; during the last few years, one could see a trend and a déjà vu in US-Pak threats and response. Even the Trump administration issued a similar threat a few months earlier, followed by attempting to work with Pakistan “one last time”.
How far will the US administration go this time in forcing Pakistan to do more? What has changed? And what has not? And what is not likely to?
US-Pak Relations: What has changed?
Few things have changed. First, the US President, who is rhetorically sound and willing to use his tweet as a weapon. Trump’s mind seems to be on an autopilot mode and has a tweet button on its reach that could be pushed at any time. And it started the new round on the 01 January: “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies and deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools.”
He followed it with a threat and an ultimatum: “They (Pakistan) give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more.” This President seems to be willing to pursue the options that the US have in materialising the threats. Freezing the aid is the first step. But, how far will he really go, and be willing to escalate further?
The US Presidents always had options; the previous ones didn’t use it beyond a point. For example, the following political, economic and military options were always available for the American Presidents in executing the US threats vis-à-vis Pakistan: freezing the economic and military aid, increasing the drone attacks and expanding its geographic coverage within Pakistan, increasing the pressure on the Af-Pak border, politically pressurizing Pakistan with an intention to declare the latter a State that sponsors terrorism, formally reducing the political ties from a major Non-NATO ally status etc.
The Obama administration did occasionally pursue certain actions covering the above; for example, the killing of Osama bin Laden, the Salala attack across the Af-Pak border, and an increased drone attacks but primarily concentrating on the FATA region except for an occasional attack on Balochistan. However, Obama did not issue threats as Trump has done in the last few months. His administration issued few threats, followed by a hectic US-Pak engagement, with the latter taking few actions. Obama did not threaten Pakistan directly, as Trump has done.
Second major change – relates to the general perception in the US about Pakistan, which transcends the White House. Until last decade, Pakistan had influential backers in the Pentagon, US State Department, Think Tanks and the academic community. Today, there is a substantial change across the board in the US about the American perception of Pakistan. What Trump tweeted about Pakistan – lies and being deceitful, is shared by many in the US.
A section in the US also used to believe in the “TINA” factor – “there is no alternative” other than working with Pakistan. Nuclear weapons, the threat of it falling into the wrong hands, takeover of the State by the radicals, strategic location – a combination of the above were used to justify the American reliance on Pakistan. Despite knowing about the “costs” of engaging Pakistan, the above was pushed as “benefits”. Islamabad and Rawalpindi were well aware of the above, and used it. Rather abused it.
This seems to have changed now. From the Pentagon to the media, there is a change across the board on how the Americans view Pakistan today, and value the utility of Islamabad in the future security calculations. Even those individuals and institutions, including the Pakistani diaspora in the US – seem to be cautious in projecting the original discourse of working with Islamabad and be sensitive to its concerns.
Today, the “costs” of cooperation seems to outweigh the “benefits” of US overlooking Pakistan’s double game.
Third, Pakistan also has changed now. Besides the public rhetoric, from Pakistan’s side, there is extra confidence. The perceived support from China, and the expectation that the CPEC will result in Islamabad reducing its dependence on the US has given a new outlook. Today a section in Pakistan is willing to ignore the American threats. This section, wants Pakistan to take care of its own strategic interests and not be unduly worried about the American threats.
What has not changed?
Pakistan’s persistence in supporting the Haqqani network, and the domestic debate within Pakistan about the bilateral relations with the US – both have not changed.
Though, there have been few domestic inputs and internal voices about the need to reorient Pakistan’s strategy towards Afghanistan, concerning implementation, Pakistan’s approach remains the same.
More importantly, the domestic rhetoric about the US and the anti-American sentiments within Pakistan has not changed. In fact, it has worsened further. The US is seen as an ungrateful ally and a “master” than a “friend”.
The American accusation on Pakistan not doing more in Afghanistan is projected as an excuse and a failure of the former in Kabul. One could repeatedly see the public rhetoric in Pakistan that the US demanding Islamabad to do more is to hide its own failure in Afghanistan.
Third, Pakistan has been projecting the blowback as a sacrifice, and has started to believe in it – creating and sustaining a new narrative within. Instead of owning the war on terrorism, Pakistan has externalised it and projected it as fighting someone else’s war and suffering for it. Repeatedly, one could see this narrative within Pakistan that also calls for severing the ties with the US. An oft-repeated question has been: Why should Pakistan fight the American war in Afghanistan?
As a result of the above, there is no introspection about Pakistan’s involvement in Afghanistan during the last few decades. Is the problem in Af-Pak only a result of the CIA, and Pakistan is more a collateral? Latter seems to believe in the same.
And what is not likely to?
Three things are unlikely to change. First, Pakistan’s geography. For the American war machinery, Pakistan’s geography is significant. It goes through the Karachi port and across Peshawar and Quetta. Once the war is over, it has to get back through the same way.
US has an option, but has been unwilling to look beyond Pakistan on this – Iran and Chahbahar. During the last years of Obama’s administration, the US administration was trying to reach out to Tehran. Geographically, Iran could be the much-needed option for the US to reach Afghanistan. Politically as well; Tehran has fewer ambitions in Kabul than Islamabad. Though Iran has also hosted millions of Afghan refugees in its soil, it has not abused them as Pakistan has. Nor has Iran attempted to intervene in Afghanistan and use a group as its proxy, as Pakistan has been using the Haqqani network.
Trump has closed the Iran option for the US in Afghanistan. As a result, Pakistan’s geography is likely to remain a strategic tool for Islamabad.
Second, Pakistan’s foreign policy towards Afghanistan. Despite domestic demands for a review of Pakistan’s Afghan policy, it has remained the same. The Afghan policy makers of Pakistan pursue the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network as a strategy to achieve a larger objective in Afghanistan – having a friendly, if not a puppet regime in Kabul. This will be pursued as an unstated “existential problem” of Pakistan.
Finally, the Afghan decision-making process is likely to remain with the Deep State. It has always been with the Establishment than with the Parliament. This has been a problem in Pakistan reorienting its Afghan policy. And it will remain so.