Pak’s Time of Reckoning

The US is clear that Pakistan has been playing a classic "running with the hare, hunting with the hounds" double game in Afghanistan.

Gurmeet Kanwal


After an embarrassingly long review process, US President Donald Trump announced his administration’s policy for the resolution of the conflict in Afghanistan in the last week of August 2017. While reiterating continuing diplomatic, military and financial commitment to peace and stability and political reconciliation in Afghanistan, Trump ruled out giving a blank cheque.

President Trump emphasised that the denial of safe havens in Afghanistan to terrorist organisations will remain an important national security objective. While the US commitment to the elimination of the al-Qaeda and the Taliban will continue, the US will no longer be engaged in activities aimed at nation building.

Signalling that the current White House, unlike the Obama administration, will not micromanage the conflict, Trump left the decision on the number of troops to be maintained in Afghanistan to Defence Secretary James Mattis. Indications are that up to about 4,000 additional troops are to be sent to reinforce the 9,800 American troops who are stationed in Afghanistan at present.

In a major departure from the policies of the Obama administration, Trump invited India to join the US as a partner to work towards conflict resolution in Afghanistan. He termed India as “a key security and economic partner of the United States” and said that developing a strategic partnership with India was a “critical part of the South Asia strategy for America.”

As had been widely anticipated, Trump put Pakistan on notice for encouraging terrorist organisations to destabilise neighbouring countries. He blamed Pakistan for harbouring “safe havens for terrorist organisations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond.” Trump told Pakistan that it has “much to gain” from partnering with the US, but also warned the country that “it has much to lose by continuing to harbour criminals and terrorists.”

Soon after Trump’s enunciation of the new policy, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that Trump was clear that the policy was a shift from a time-based military strategy to a conditions-based strategy, “which means it will be dictated by conditions on the ground informed by battlefield commanders,” Tillerson said, “The president has charged us to develop policies and tactics both diplomatically and militarily to attack terrorism in as many forms, wherever it exists in the world and wherever it might present a threat to the homeland or to Americans anywhere. This means that we have to develop techniques that are global in their nature.”

The new US policy was received with consternation in Pakistan. After a rare huddle, Pakistan’s civil and military leadership said “scapegoating” them will not help stabilise war-ravaged Afghanistan. Stung to the quick by Trump’s criticism, Pakistan suspended bilateral engagements with the US. The government announced its intention to convene an international conference to highlight how Pakistan is itself a victim of terrorism and how it has contributed to peace and stability in Afghanistan.

China lost no time in coming to its all-weather ally Pakistan’s help. State Councillor Yang Jiechi told Secretary Tillerson, “We should attach importance to Pakistan’s important role in Afghanistan and respect Pakistan’s sovereignty and legiti­mate security concerns.” However, altho­ugh it has taken a long time and many US casualties, the US establishment is now clear that Pakistan has been playing a classic “running with the hare, hunting with the hounds” double game in Afghanistan.

Pakistan seeks strategic depth in Afghanistan and wishes to install a friendly and pliable regime in power in Kabul. It is particularly wary of India’s increasing influence over the Afghan government and its growing footprint in socio-economic development. It is for these reasons that Pakistan continues to deny India overland passage to Afghanistan for trade and commerce.

There is widespread recognition in the policy community in the US that Pakistan is part of the problem and cannot, therefore, be a part of the solution. However, there is also the somewhat grudging acceptance that unless Pakistan is party to it, there cannot be a workable solution to the conflict in Afghanistan. The challenge lies in finding a viable via media that gets rid of radical extremism without undermining the national interests of Afghanistan’s regional neighbours.

Trouble ahead

Unless Pakistan mends its ways, there is likely to be major trouble ahead. Trump has signalled a clear change in his country’s approach to Pakistan’s continued sponsorship of terrorist attacks against US and Afghan personnel and those of the NATO allies. Failing drastic change in Pakistan’s policies, the US will be forced to adopt a more hard-line approach.

The gloves will soon come off and a sharp increase in the number of missile strikes from armed drones is likely against Taliban leaders, including on Pakistani soil. This may be followed by strikes from fighter aircraft – initially from within Afghan air space. Subsequently, even trans-Durand Line air strikes may follow. Trans-border raids by the Special Forces on terrorist leaders and launch pads can also be foreseen.

As for Indian assistance, President Trump had mentioned India’s “billions of dollar in trade with the US” as one of the reasons why New Delhi should step up its economic and development assistance to Afghanistan. India has already provided over $2 billion worth of development assistance to Afghanistan over the last decade and a half. These funds were utilised for infrastructure development projects like the Zaranj-Delaram highway, the Salma Dam hydel power project and a power transmission line. Throughout this period, India was kept away from the Afghan high table, ostensibly due to Pakistan’s sensibilities.

As India considers peace and stability in Afghanistan to be vital national interests and looks at it as a strategic crossroads to Central and West Asia, India would 
certainly be willing to contribute more towards socio-economic development. For once, Indian and US interests in Afghanistan coincide, though the Pakistan army and the ISI would not be pleased.

(The writer is Distinguished Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi)