The military junta in Pakistan – the de facto rulers of the country – always harbored a nightmare and along with it an achievement, a victory of sorts, that they never tired of boasting. The nightmare was an increased and acknowledged role of India in Afghanistan, which would mean Indian presence on the east and the west of the country that could clamp the Pakistani military down from the front and back.
The ‘achievement’ they always boasted was by maintaining an influence on Taliban, Pakistan, according to the military minds, has a strategic depth that would be a decisive and a vital factor in case of all-out attack from India from the east.
On the night of August 21, the junta saw the possibility of their nightmare becoming a reality and their remarkable ‘achievement’ turning into a remarkable disaster.
As the Afghan review completed and President Trump unfurled its key recommendation, the military and the media in Pakistan stood embarrassed searching for reaction and response to the most damning indictment of Pakistani support to militants on both sides of the border.
One, it not only promised India an enhanced role in Afghanistan, but it kind of asked India to act like a stabilizing force and broker the peace. Two, it bluntly asked Pakistan to desist from aiding the terrorists in Pakistan and Afghanistan otherwise not only risk losing $850 million annual Coalition Support Fund but also the American support and goodwill that the country uses to borrow from international donors.
The Trump speech also contained a veiled threat that if Pakistan continue to harbor safe havens and sanctuaries for terrorists on its land, they ‘ll be taken out regardless of which side of the border they live on.
Short of a hostile military action, this was probably the most stark warning Washington could have issued. Pakistan military can afford and perhaps was looking forward to the loss of $850 million annual fund but it can not watch the Afghan account being transferred to their arch enemy right under their nose.
This so called ‘asset’ was watered and nurtured by Pakistani military and intelligence agencies ever since 1979 when Soviet forces entered Afghanistan and now here they are not only being shunted out of the country but they will have to bear its handing over to India. It will be naïve for Pentagon or Langley to think that Pakistan would let it happen without a fight but what are the option.
One, it reverts back to backing the insurgents with men and material like in the past and keep it boiling for India to a point that it becomes impossible for Delhi to sustain its role in Afghanistan. Pakistanis are veterans of this trade and they can do it but not without a huge cost and risk-taking.
The cost of this strategy would be to feel the heat in Balochistan and possibly urban Sindh. Because it would invite all kinds of players and actors to the arena and Pakistani territory would become a gian free zone where everyone would ply its trade. Ultimately, it could lead to extension of Afghan war that would be fought on Pakistani soil. This situation would become too hot to handle for Pakistani military.
Two, it severs all contacts with US military and intelligence agencies and start orbiting not only China but Russia as well. In this case China’s commitment for Pakistan would not be unlimited and its support will not be a blank cheque. To realize its dream of One Belt, One Road where Pakistan is a vital piece, China needs a trouble-free and peaceful access to Persian Gulf and Pakistani port of Gwadar. Beijing is spending billions of dollars to gain this land access to the mouth of Gulf and world’s energy route. Another spell of Pakistani support to militants in Afghanistan would seriously jeopardise China’s ambition and would keep attracting US and Western attention.
So at this point China would also ask Pakistan to break clean with the militants, leaving Islamabad hardly the choice of entangling in Afghanistan. Remotely it may pit Beijing against Washington on Pakistani soil and in this case Pakistan would find it hard to save its territorial integrity.
Third, Islamabad would extend a hand of friendship towards Iran and Russia to complete an axis against the US and Indian interests in the region. Here too competing interests in Afghanistan where Tehran and Moscow would not be interested in supporting Taliban and Pashtuns will render this effort to weave a so called grand alliance against the US and India. The eviction of the US troops from Afghanistan would certainly spark a short-term interest in both countries but both the countries are no friends of Taliban and no enemies to India.
In nutshell, Pakistan has no long-term applicable strategy in Afghanistan. It has now several bad choices to pick from.