By Bhaskar Roy*
On August 21, US President Donald Trump threatened Pakistan with heavy retribution if Islamabad did not close down terrorist havens on its soil and drive out these elements. He specifically mentioned the Afghan Taliban and the Al Qaeda, but in a manner referred to all Pakistan – supported terrorists (including understandably those that continuously target India). Before this, the US listed Hizbul Mujahidin as a terrorist organisation and its leader Sayed Salahuddin as a leader of the terrorist organisation. Pakistan protested that the Hizbul and Salahuddin were not terrorists but freedom fighters.
Pakistan failed to read Trump and his cabinet and security establishment heads. He has in his cabinet ex-Generals who look at war and conflicts from a soldier’s point of view and not from the perspective of politicians and diplomats. Some of them have been tested in Afghanistan, but have been hamstrung by civilians in Washington.
Defense Secretary James Mattis is a retired army general and reported to be a no nonsense man. Present White House Chief of Staff, John F. Kelly is a retired marine four star general. Head of National Security Affairs (NSA) H. R. Macmaster is also a retired general.
There are very important players – Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the senior most diplomat and Trump’s hand-picked man, the CIA, the FBI, as well as congressmen. Senator John McCain, the highly decorated Vietnam War veteran has prepared a bill to declare Pakistan a state sponsor of terror. The final word is that of President Trump unless he withdraws his statement with one of his early morning tweets.
In his address at Fort Myers military base in Arlington, Trump admitted he had contemplated withdrawal from Afghanistan. That was his instinct and he usually follows through with his instincts. But after his inauguration he tasked Defense Secretary Mattis and his security team to review all options in Afghanistan and South Asia. In conclusion, his address came at Fort Myers. Trump’s chief strategist Stave Banon, a strong votary for American withdrawal from Afghanistan exited the White House before this speech, which may have made Trump’s task a little easier. Another Banon acolyte, Sebastian Gorka, was recently shown the door from the White House.
Trump was forthright. He made it clear that Pakistan was providing safe haven to terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and others who were killing American personnel in Afghanistan while receiving billions of dollars in American aid. He, however, did not stop at American casualties but pointed out that these terrorists harboured by Pakistan pose a threat to the region and beyond. The meaning was clear, since it quite obviously included the threat to India. The 26/11 terrorist attack in Mumbai which was launched by the ISI using Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET), has not been forgotten, and the 9/11 attack in the USA is still fresh in the minds of the American people.
Trump has not closed the door on Pakistan, however. He recalled that in the past Pakistan had been a valued partner, with both militaries working together against common enemies. He also took into account the fact that Pakistani people had suffered from terrorism. But Pakistan had to change immediately, if the partnership was to continue. That message was emphatically conveyed. If Islamabad wants to continue to receive that aid, they have to expel the Al Qaeda and the Haqqani network.
General John Nicholson, head of US forces in Afghanistan has recently reiterated that Taliban leaders live in safe havens in Quetta and Peshawar. They are known as the Quetta Shura and the Peshawar Shura. Sartaj Aziz, former foreign policy advisor to now outsted Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, had admitted their presence in Pakistan. This is no secret to any interested Pakistan-watcher in the world.
Yet, Pakistan’s foreign office brazenly and unashamedly repeats ad nauseam that no Taliban leaders or elements are in Pakistan, that Pakistan does not allow its soil to be used against any country. This has become an international joke.
It would be recalled that in the aftermath of 9/11, 2001 President George W. Bush gave Pakistan the ultimation “you are either with us, or against us”. Pakistani President, General Parvez Musharraf was shaken. It is a well-kept secret that Musharraf made a hurried trip to China to seek their support and advice. The Islamabad airport was closed down at night and reopened late morning. The flying time between Islambad and Beijing is 7 hours. But the time difference is 5 hours east to west. Musharraf could easily have an hour or two’s discussion with the Chinese and be in his office in the morning. Even the Pakistani ambassador did not know about this, only one person in the embassy did. The Chinese apparently advised Musharraf to cooperate with the Americans.
The international community heard other dire and threatening voices from Washington at that time. It is alleged that US Deputy Secretary of State. Richard Armitage had remarked to his Pakistani interlocutors, that “we can bomb you to the stone age”.
Musharraf opened almost three-fourths of Pakistani air space to the Americans. They bombed the Tora Bora caves in Afghanistan, but Osama Bin Laden and his top Shura members survived. A hundred thousand pairs of boots from the US and its allies and NATO were put on Afghanistan’s soil. The Taliban and their Pakistani military advisors and military personnel were pushed out from the stronghold in Kandahar. Pakistan was made a major non-NATO ally, a position it still enjoys. Billions of dollars were poured into Pakistan. Americans Afghan war financing reached two trillion dollars.
Pakistan continued to do what they do best-obfuscate, lie, and use those American dollars and military assistance to fund the Haqqani network and the Taliban, and strengthen it military capacity against India.
Declassified US intelligence has recorded that Pakistan’s ISI funded the Haqqani network to annihilate the all women CIA post near the Pakistan-Afghan border. The US, at the highest level, gave hard proof to Pakistan at the highest level, that intelligence provided to the Pakistani army and the ISI on terrorist locations were shared with the very same terrorists before a strike, so that they could move out. Frustrating, and the US must shoulder the blame for lack of a non-cohesive strategy.
President Barack Obama’s decision to pull out troops from Afghanistan was premature. There are only just over eight thousand troops in Afghanistan to train and advise the Afghan army of around three hundred thousand. This cannot do the trick. The Afghan army is still not disciplined, cohesive and is riddled with corruption. They do not have sophisticated arms and intelligence gathering capability, especially technical intelligence gathering. At the top of the political hierarchy there are two heads namely President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. Ashraf Ghani tried to play footsie with the Pakistan army at the instance of the US. He got his feet burnt. Dr. Abdullah totally distrusts Pakistani army and the deep state, the movers and shakers in Pakistan.
Dr. Abdullah has gone through both the wars in Afghanistan. He was an acolyte of Ahmed Shah Masood, the lion of Panjsher who was assassinated by the ISI Taliban combine. Ashraf Ghani has been somewhat itinerant. The US needs to look at this duo strategically.
Pakistan’s government, army and politicians were infuriated by two aspects of President Trump’s speech. First was insulting Pakistan publicly to the world. They called it “scape goating”, crying hoarse that they made the biggest sacrifice in lives and money while fighting terrorism.
While it is true that a huge number of lives, both civilian and military, were lost, who were these terrorists that Pakistan was fighting against? It was mainly the Tehrik-e-Taliban, Pakistan (TTP), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LEJ) and some such others. These tanzims were created by Pakistan’s deep state to fight in Afghanistan, and attack and kill Shia Muslims. But this strategy blew up in Pakistan’s face. The TTP turned against the government because their demand for complete Sharia law was not moving. The LEJ was black listed because Iran, a Shia country which shares a border with Pakistan, was outraged. But killing of Shias and bombing their mosques continue. As Hillary Clinton, Secretary of state in Obama’s Presidency had told her Pakistani interlocutors. “You can’t keep snakes in your backyard and expect them only to bite your neighbours … eventually those snakes are going to turn on whoever has them in the backyard”.
Pakistan is in a bind because of the policy of using terrorism as a foreign policy initiative in the region, especially against Afghanistan and India, and periodically in Bangladesh, its erstwhile territory which broke away and became independent in 1971. The civilian government in Islamabad has little say in foreign policy in the neighbourhood, the USA and China. Those are controlled by the GHQ in Rawalpindi.
This atmosphere is creating space for the ISIS which has declared its Khorasan initiative in the Pak-Afghan border region. According to unverified reports elements from the TTP, Afghan Taliban, Al Qaeda and the Haqqani network are joining ISIS Khorasan.
Pakistan has got itself into a position even if, theoretically it wants to discard the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network and the Al Qaeda, it will be besieged by these terrorists that they spawned. The chicken will come home to roost at some point of time. There will be mayhem, and Pakistan’s nuclear assets could be at risk. The military has no end game, and they have demolished political and intellectual discourse.
The second issue is Trump’s speech was asking India to play a greater development role in Afghanistan. He did not ask India to play a military role in Afghanistan, and India would not do it anyway. But all sections in Pakistan went ballistic. The foreign office spokesman Nafees Zakaria said that India was “involved in state sponsored terrorism” and cannot bear effective partner in bringing peace to the region.
The Pakistan National Assembly passed an unanimous resolution (Aug 30) rejecting US President Donald Trump’s “hostile and threatening” statements, condemned Washington’s call for increased Indian involvement in Afghanistan, and called on US, NATO, and Afghan government to ensure India was denied use of Afghan territory to attack Pakistan. But they have failed to provide any concrete evidence. In this connection it may be recalled that in 2009 when a visiting Sri Lankan cricket team suffered a terrorist attack, then Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik declared that he had proof that it was an Indian conspiracy, and he would “show it at the right time”.
That “right time” never came. The truth came out in the Pakistani media. The attack was by a group of Pakistani terrorists, and a crude attempt by the deep state to frame India. Pakistan’s cricket lost and even today teams are unwilling to go on a Pakistan tour.
Coming to reality, US needs Pakistan for their Afghan policy. Following Trump’s speech there was a reassessment of his Afghan policy statement. US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford underlined Pakistan’s role in bringing peace to Afghanistan.
The US has huge stakes in Pakistan. It requires Pakistan’s territory and airspace to feed their military in Afghanistan. The US could have found another route through Central Arian countries. But the visceral hatred for Russia, and poking Moscow in the ribs even today, has closed that option.
Washington does not want Pakistan to fall firmly into the laps of China and Russia. Yet, it is doing so in more than one way. Softer words on Pakistan are coming out of Washington.
Two take aways. President Trump said that involvement in Afghanistan is open ended, based on ground realities. Next, there will be no nation building. Afghanistan will decide its country’s politics including with the Afghan Taliban.
This is the new reality. The Afghanistan situation is in for a long and bloody haul.
*The writer is a New Delhi based strategic analyst. He can be reached at e-mail [email protected]