In his South Asia strategy US President Donald Trump not only criticised Pakistan but also sent a clear message to Afghanistan that the US military and financial support towards the country was ‘limited’. He also demanded of the Afghan government to take more responsibility towards peace and economic development. Trump also called out Pakistan by asking it to act against ‘alleged’ terrorist safe havens, and demonstrate its commitment towards ‘civilisation, order and peace’.
One surprise in Trump’s speech was India’s ‘forced entry and role’ in Afghanistan’s future development and stability. While appreciating USA’s strategic partnership with India, Trump ‘hoped’ that New Delhi would help the US in ensuring long-term peace and stability in South Asia, especially because India made ‘billions from trade’ with the US. On Taliban’s front, Trump also kept the door open for reconciliation in the future. “Someday, after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan,” said Trump.
Pakistan’s only silver lining on Tuesday was China’s explicit support of Pakistan and snub of Trump’s statement, calling on the international community to acknowledge Pakistan’s efforts and sacrifices in counter-terrorism in the region.
In the wake of these developments, Pakistani civil and military leadership, in recent talks with US and Afghan officials, has conveyed a few categorical messages such as:
* Pakistan remains committed to peace in Afghanistan as much it is for its own soil. Additionally, Pakistan would also unconditionally support any regional initiative, be it the Quadrilateral Support Group or Moscow initiatives, in order to pursue some breakthrough in the stalled peace process.
* Pakistan continues to believe in and pursue regional economic activity, very much in the spirit of its partnership with China through China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). CPEC is also one such initiative through which, by bringing Afghanistan on board, the aim of regional economic activity could also be achieved.
* In terms of foreign military policies, Pakistan does not agree with the Afghan demand of a third-party verification of counter-terrorism actions either here or in Afghanistan. This is because third-party verification and monitoring is complicated and fraught with risks due to absence of trust between the two countries. Pakistan wants to develop a bilateral engagement mechanism in the light of the March 15 meeting between Sartaj Aziz – the then adviser to prime minister – and the Afghan National Security Adviser Hanif Atmar.
* On border control, Pakistan wants to institute a bilateral border management mechanism to strengthen controls over cross-border movement of terrorists. Apparently, Afghan leadership wants to address the issue of security first. This is rooted in the raging Taliban-Daesh (IS) insurgency that claims dozens of lives every day. In early August, a joint Taliban-Daesh attack in Mirza Olang village in Sayyad district of Sari Pul killed dozens of people. Even though the Taliban categorically denied any such joint operation, local witness accounts contradicted Taliban’s claims. Such operations could pose a major threat not only for the security forces in Afghanistan, but also for major regional stakeholders who had previously treated both the militant groups with a different prism.
Understandably, it makes it difficult for Afghan President Ghani and other leaders to push the peace process. Afghans are also wary of abrupt border closures by Pakistani authorities. Thus, this leads to the question of why should Pakistan make its policy contingent upon that of the Trump administration?
Never before has there been a greater convergence among USA, India and Afghanistan, presumably against Pakistan and its allies. And they speak with the same tone as far as their view on Pakistan is concerned. With such narratives, it also makes it difficult for the Pakistani policymakers to formulate a joint regional security policy.
But setting aside these messages, Pakistan’s foreign policy woes are not confined to US-Afghanistan-India alone. Of late, even Chinese leaders have been politely asking Pakistan to do something demonstrable as far as indiscriminate counter-terrorism measures are concerned. Chinese deputy foreign minister and other officials have reportedly referred to the negative perception – which they say the Indo-US-Afghan narrative on Pakistan – that keeps generating in important capitals.
Pakistan, thus, needs to have a clear and direct policy-oriented approach if it needs to take its allies on board and implement effective counter-terror policies on the Pak-Afghan border.
Pakistan remains beset with its own internal dynamics and lack of a clear vision on terrorism and extremism. It is still fearful of a direct confrontation with the Afghan and Pakistani proponents of ‘jihadism’, ie Taliban and al Qaeda.
With a semblance of control over the spiral of terrorism, officials are afraid of un-ruffling the hornet’s nest at home. These fears, thus, reinforce the Chinese officials’ concerns of Islamabad’s dire need of formulating a clear counter-terror policy – both domestic and regional – if it needs to achieve across the board consensus on the issue. In terms of Afghanistan’s future and peace, Washington might have finally acknowledged that a military solution would never prevail in Afghanistan. Therefore, regional diplomacy initiatives – involving China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan – with active participation of USA, India and Afghanistan could provide a viable solution to a war that currently appears endless. Anything to the contrary is only likely to fuel conflict more than ever and keep the entire region on tenterhooks.
Published in Daily Times, August 24th 2017.