While the old thinking on Pakistan is back in the US, the Afghan government is being seen as a hindrance in US’ South Asia policy.
By Seema Sirohi
President Donald Trump’s South Asia policy will be two years old next month. It was seen as radical at the time for its tough stance on Pakistan and for trying to change the dynamic in Afghanistan in favour of the government.
But two years on, the policy seems to have done a 180-degree turn on some key aspects while the main objective has changed from finding a just peace to finding the quickest way out of Afghanistan.
Old thinking on Pakistan is back while the Afghan government is being treated as a hindrance. US Special Envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, is negotiating with the Taliban without preconditions despite a constant string of brutal attacks and no ceasefire.
Pakistan has dealt itself into the game with a little give here and there. The American hope – once again – is that Pakistan will deliver what they haven’t for decades.
Trump’s original South Asia policy had stipulated a “conditions-based” approach for maintaining US troops in Afghanistan, instead of a deadline-driven policy of the previous administration. The conditions haven’t improved, only worsened and the Taliban are ascendant on the ground and in meeting rooms of Doha.
The original policy had also addressed Pakistan’s duplicity head on — of providing safe havens to terrorists while playing victim. Trump’s famous New Year’s Day tweet in 2018 where he accused Pakistan of giving “nothing but lies an deceit” in exchange for more than $33 billion in aid over 15 years had created waves all around.
But on July 22 Trump will receive Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan in the White House. The distance between condemnation and invitation was indeed short. Even if the visit is mere optics with nothing of substance on the table, it is a public “thank you” from Washington, which serves the Pakistan army’s purpose just fine.
Army chief Gen. Qamar Bajwa’s recent trip to London seems to have helped. The British, ever ready to prove they still matter in the subcontinent, were persuaded by Bajwa to intervene with the Americans to ease up. Pakistan was under tremendous pressure from cuts in US security assistance, the grey listing by the Financial Action Task Force, constant focus on its terrorist proxies and India’s campaign.
But Bajwa and company used their cards deftly with Khalilzad who himself was under great pressure to deliver a deal. Once the talks began and there was faint progress, he felt the need to reward Pakistan, the very state he had once advocated should be declared a state sponsor of terrorism.
To further sweeten the pot, the State department has designated the Balochistan Liberation Army a terrorist organisation ahead of Khan’s visit to the White House. It is an old Pakistani request, which was resurrected and granted. Since the BLA had been targeting Chinese interests in Pakistan of late, the terrorist designation gives Washington plus points in Beijing as well.
Besides approving a visit for the Pakistani prime minister, Washington also gave a green signal for a $6 billion IMF bailout for the cash-strapped country. Only last July Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seemed to oppose a bailout because he didn’t want IMF money going to pay off Chinese loans. US’ Pompeo warns against IMF bailout for Pakistan that aids China.
But Pompeo has been quiet lately about Pakistan’s extreme indebtedness to China. Pakistan’s current financial crisis is at least partly due to the growing burden of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
The costs of CPEC, the largest single component thus far of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, have sky rocketed — Pakistan is among eight countries with extremely high levels of debt to China. Will the CPEC books be opened to IMF officials? And how will the IMF ensure the money is not going into Chinese banks since money is fungible.
Yes, the IMF conditions are relatively tough this time and promises made by Pakistan in turn on revenue collection are unrealistic. It would appear the IMF has accepted the promises purely for political reasons — for the 13th time from Pakistan since the 1980’s.
The change in the US stance on Afghanistan is equally noteworthy. The Trump Administration seems to have decided that the pressure it put on Pakistan by cutting off security assistance has already delivered results – the Afghan peace process is in its seventh round. It’s time give Pakistan a break.
But a lot remains to be seen. Will Khalilzad be able to get a framework agreement in place by Sept 1 – the deadline set by Pompeo? If so, does it leave enough time to hold elections later in September? International donors are yet to commit any real funds for holding the elections. Getting the election machinery in place to conduct the polling also requires time.
If elections are postponed beyond a point, the legitimacy of President Ashraf Ghani’s government will come into question. Ghani wants elections sooner rather than later for obvious reasons. But he doesn’t have a firm commitment from the US on the issue.
Pakistan, of course, wants an interim government, which will include their Taliban friends. Imran Khan actually said so in March and suffered severe push back from the Afghans and even the US ambassador to Afghanistan. But it should surprise no one if the Taliban’s tactics in Doha are aimed at ensuring a result to Pakistan’s liking.
Interestingly, Khalilzad went to China after the latest round of peace talks and not Kabul. Is China playing guarantor and is that the agreement he has worked out in his shuttle diplomacy?
For India the latest developments will be sobering, if not alarming. Despite being the largest regional donor to Afghanistan, India seems out of the picture except for a couple of briefings by Khalilzad under duress.