Can Pakistan help the US tame the Taliban so that Trump can withdraw US forces from Afghanistan? That’s the price the US demands in exchange for aid for Pakistan’s floundering economy, but success is far from assured.
By Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan received a hero’s welcome as he returned home from his recent visit to Washington, with jubilant supporters greeting him at the airport. A friendly and cowed domestic media hyperventilated about his successful visit. Apart from a renewal of high-level political engagement, the visit has raised hopes of resumption in economic and military aid, in return for Pakistan’s cooperation on easing an Afghanistan peace deal. Trump’s abortive offer of mediation on Kashmir was the icing on the cake. The visit ended five years of estrangement. But Pakistan’s euphoria may need to be tempered by the harsh realities of Afghanistan, terrorism and economic distress.
Khan’s visit was to “reset” bilateral ties. US President Donald Trump had cancelled US$1.3 billion in economic and military aid, blaming Pakistan for deceit and treachery in promoting terrorism and playing the spoiler in Afghanistan. Pakistan was also worried about its potential inclusion on the Financial Action Task Force’s blacklist on terrorism financing charges and unnerved by India’s cross-border military strikes against terrorist camps. Pakistan’s current patron, China, failed to provide 100 per cent protection, leaving the country feeling uncomfortable with its growing reliance on Beijing.
America had made it clear that it expected Pakistan to take irreversible and irrevocable steps against terrorist groups. Before the visit, Pakistan arrested Hafiz Saeed, internationally declared terrorist and chief of the jihadi terrorist outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba, responsible for terrorist attacks on the Indian Parliament and Mumbai. Pakistan has arrested this terrorist several times before, only to release him when international pressure eased.
Pakistan’s floundering economy, kept barely afloat by loans from friendly countries and a promised IMF bailout worth US$6 billion, was another reason to seek American help. Pakistan’s currency is losing value, foreign exchange reserves are dangerously low and annual exports have stagnated at US$25.5 billion, far below Bangladesh’s exports of around US$41 billion.
Pakistan is the breeding ground for scores of Islamist terrorist outfits, nurtured and used by the Pakistan Army in launching terrorist attacks in Afghanistan and India. In Washington, Khan made the surprising public admission that over 40 terrorist groups and up to 40,000 terrorists were operating in his country, and that Pakistan was trying hard to neutralise them. He also acknowledged that these groups were operating in Afghanistan and India. The White House statement said, inter alia, that “it is vital that Pakistan take action to shut down all [terrorist] groups once and for all”.
Pakistan has sought to leverage its control over the Taliban in helping to extricate America from the 18-year-old Afghanistan quagmire, a denouement Trump wants badly for his re-election campaign in 2020. For Pakistan’s military, American aid is crucial for upgrading and maintaining American military hardware in its inventory and sourcing new weaponry. Khan was accompanied by the army chief and military intelligence chief to Washington, reinforcing the belief that he is a “selected” rather than elected prime minister.
All Pakistani prime ministers invariably raise the Kashmir issue and solicit international mediation. Choreographed questions by Pakistani journalists and Khan’s flattery led Trump to come up with a fantastic story that, at the G20 Summit in Osaka, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had asked him to mediate on Kashmir. India promptly rejected Trump’s assertion, reiterating its long-held position that Kashmir is a bilateral issue and no mediation is acceptable. But Trump’s ill-considered remarks gave Khan bragging rights and a propaganda point Pakistan, an American ally during the cold war, was showered with military and economic aid worth billions of dollars by several US administrations. Pakistan was also viewed as a proxy against India, because India chose non-alignment, with a tilt towards the Soviet Union. Leveraging relations with Pakistan to pressure India remains a recurring feature of American policy in South Asia. Pakistan’s useful role as a proxy against India also led to the China-Pakistan strategic nexus, soon after the Sino-Indian conflict in 1962.
The China-Pakistan nexus has matured into a strategic alliance, resulting in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and Islamabad as a client state of China. The Afghan jihad to oust the Soviet Union started another American gravy train, feeding generations of Pakistan’s military and civilian elite and their progeny. America and China also helped Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and missile development programmes during this period.
America needs Pakistan, particularly its army, to tame the Taliban and make it cooperate to reach an all-party peace deal in Afghanistan. While America seeks a face-saving retreat, Pakistan seeks a government in Afghanistan that is subservient to its interest and eliminating Indian influence. Though America describes India as a strategic partner, with an eye towards balancing an expansionist and aggressive China, exit from Afghanistan is Trump’s first priority.
Both Russia and China also want America out of Afghanistan but are wary of the consequences of instability and Islamist extremism taking root again in this sensitive southern flank of China and Central Asia. All countries are hedging their ties with one another in pursuit of their respective interests. Can “Taliban Khan” (as he has been dubbed by his opponents) deliver on the promises made in Washington? The final outcome lies in the realm of the unknown.
This commentary originally appeared in South China Morning Post.