By Todd Royal*
Arguably the toughest geopolitical stalemate in the world is the intersection of India-Pakistan relations that use Afghanistan as a proxy battleground when each foe attempts to use realism to balance the other’s power. Enter President Trump using tougher rhetoric and cutting aid to Pakistan in an attempt to change their behavior that rewards the Taliban and other extremist proxies in its fight against India while harming America’s interests in the region.
In President Trump’s famous book, The Art of the Deal, he’s consistently depicted using madmen-like, outlandish negotiating tactics to win business deals; seemingly Trump’s employing the same tactics dealing with Pakistan. Could his madman approach work with a duplicitous, reluctant ally the United States (US) has given $34 billion since 2002? No one in his administration or other allied governments are certain, but something has to change when it comes to the US and Pakistan. Past US administrations never wanted to antagonize Pakistan over US logistical dependence in Afghanistan and Pakistan being to big to fail since they are a nuclear power. But Trump doesn’t seem to care about Pakistan’s threats and “well curated myth of too big or dangerous to fail.”
It’s not clear, however, which approach will work. There are two schools of thought on this issue: the soft power approach or the “hard power” diplomatic, economic and military method that Trump’s using. Regarding soft power, former President Obama rebuked Pakistan, but also used diplomatic avenues. However, Obama veered into hard power when he sent Navy Seals to kill Bin Laden in a safe house a mile from Pakistan’s version of West Point. Obama said he would stand firm on his threats, but couldn’t see how it was in the US’ best interest during his Presidency. This caused his Pakistan policy to waver between soft and hard power.
Trump seems to be following through on ridding the US Defense and State Department of all security-related assistance using economic hard power; but then Trump hasn’t publicly stated he won’t backtrack on his new policy towards Pakistan while simultaneously moving closer to India for realist balancing and support in the region.
Obama’s generosity didn’t seem to work so will a January 1, 2018 Trump tweet that invoked “lies and deceit,” were emanating from Islamabad be the tipping point? Could this also be the point where hard and soft power crescendo into Pakistan changing their ways and flushing terrorists out of their tribal region along its border with Afghanistan? The Brookings Institute and western intelligence agencies for years have called this tribal region of Pakistan a “haven for terrorists.”
Pakistan through their intelligence service – the highly skilled and competent – Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate’s (ISI) plays India, China and Afghanistan against one another. This achieves their realist gains against India while working closer with China through the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and militarily by aiding the Taliban’s ruthless Haqqani branch inside Pakistan.
For Pakistan this geopolitical balancing fosters governmental instability and terrorism inside Afghanistan to offset India, China’s and America’s influence in Central Asia. The Trump administration’s new policy to make Pakistan a more pliable ally takes on greater geopolitical significance when you consider the CPEC is an avenue for China and increasingly Russia to push the US out of the “trillion dollar race for the Arctic,” that has opened up in recent years for shipping and oil and gas production.
But Pakistan needs to be understood by the US, NATO and the UN Security Council if these issues are to ever be resolved. Pakistan fears a strong Afghanistan aligned with India against their interests, however, they also fear their neighbor becomes a safe haven for anti-Pakistan interests. This is why Pakistan supports the Taliban over US consternation that has now vexed three US administrations since 9/11. To understand Afghanistan from a balancing perspective, Pakistan argues if they target the Taliban or Afghan-oriented militants groups this will stir their restless Punjab heartland and Federally Administered Tribal Areas. That will then demonstrate Pakistan’s lack of governmental authority over militant groups they sponsor through the ISI and control over sovereign-held territory inside Pakistan to their sworn enemy, India.
Trump counters the US have allowed Pakistan’s double-dealing, “to support, train, fund and give sanctuary to various militant groups killing Americans and their allies in Afghanistan.” Afghanistan is America’s never-ending war and the longer America allows Pakistan to balance India via American and NATO lives the stronger Trump’s case is for allowing aid to continue.
If Pakistan disclosed institutional, governmental weakness then it shows political-military-intelligence failure from a nuclear power that could embolden militant groups, India and additional outside interference from the US, China and Russia. This also diminishes Pakistan’s influence in international bargaining for economic assistance, fighting terrorism and clipping India’s ascendant rise. These are some of the issues that have caused Shuja Nawaz of the Atlantic Council to bellow that Trump’s Pakistan policy is deeply flawed and will cause Islamabad to close access to US’ air-and-ground-based supply routes through Pakistan into Afghanistan.
In the end the US is limited in how far they can influence Pakistan and that is the dilemma with Pakistan. Coercive power only goes so far, and the US has genuine geopolitical considerations in Pakistan that go beyond Afghanistan; and so does Pakistan. Does Pakistan want to embrace China that has been predatory in its overseas economic relations when it built in Sri Lanka an “economically unviable port at Hambantota?” Now China is investing in an economically questionable port in Gwadar – which Pakistan should be wary of – and not embrace in Balochistan that historically has shown hostility to foreign influence.
The US needs to ensure the stability of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and dispel the notion to Pakistani generals that tactical nuclear weapons can be deployed without possibly falling into terrorist’s hands. If proliferation occurs – and that is a major problem India has with Pakistan – then the Modi government goes on the offensive; increasing the likelihood a major Pakistan-India war erupts that the US doesn’t want.
Trump could attempt soft power through encouraging younger, educated Pakistani’s to embrace democratization and stronger governmental structures that are battling warlord in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It shouldn’t be an either or choice. Find the reformists in Pakistan and support them when possible, otherwise the critics of the new policy could be correct. Pakistan’s threats are real and they can discontinue nuclear safety measures, enflame border insecurity in the Punjab and postpone confidence-building measures with India. Where Pakistan can do significant damage to US interests is shutting down the Afghanistan-Pakistan border for US military air, ground and logistical routes.
The best the US can hope for is being the leader in an India-Pakistan peace settlement or rapprochement that defuses the continued geopolitical, nuclear-tipped crisis while understanding that achieving these gains could take decades. Patience and attempting to develop rule-of-law, administrative stability and a business climate that supports patent protection and a technocratic class are worthy goals. Further, economic growth and political engagement that draws Pakistan towards a peaceful existence are long shots but worth the risk because the US has nothing but bad choices while fighting the Taliban and other extremist elements in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas.
Altering the strategic calculus in Pakistan is anyone’s guess; and the power distribution Pakistan’s intelligence and military apparatus gains by using the Happani network and Afghan Taliban against India won’t be severed anytime soon. Aid being cutoff may not alter Islamabad’s behavior but they shouldn’t dismiss Trump’s seriousness or US resolve.
*Todd Royal is an independent strategic consultant, researcher and author on energy matters based in southern California.