The crunch time has come. Analysts agree that the bloodiest year of America’s longest war in history is about to begin. The top priority for Washington is that Pakistan reins in the Taliban so that the next ‘fighting season’ doesn’t pose political nightmares for Trump.
The suspension of US military aid worth $225 million was known to Pakistan since August. In recent weeks, media leaks made sure that the hard news would have a soft landing in Islamabad. But what took Islamabad by surprise is the vitriolic undiplomatic tweet by President Donald Trump on New Year Day.
Epithets such as “lies & deceits” are seldom used in inter-state relationships by a head of state, and Trump conjured up a demeaning metaphor leaping out of the Charles Dickens novel where little Oliver Twist in the parish workhouse kept asking for “some more.” Indeed, $225 million is not the issue today (when Pakistan has a budget close to $2 billion for arms purchase), but what happens next. How the Trump administration would tighten the screws on Pakistan in a concerted attempt to force it to change its policies towards Afghanistan is the immediate issue. A second issue is whether Pakistan will fall in line under US pressure.
All indications are that back channels are at work. The military aid is kept in an escrow account. Pakistan’s ambassador to the US, Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry, a highly experienced diplomat, was camping in Islamabad for consultations when Trump tweeted. The statement issued in Islamabad on January 2, following the meeting of Pakistan’s National Security Council (NSC), has given a measured response. The salience of the NSC meeting must be understood from three different angles. One, there will be no hasty reaction from Pakistan to Trump’s outburst. The NSC statement didn’t even mention Trump, but instead assumed a tone of injured pride: “Recent statements and articulation by the American leadership were completely incomprehensible as they contradicted facts manifestly, struck with great insensitivity at the trust between two nations built over generations, and negated the decades of sacrifices made by the Pakistani nation.”
Two, the NSC took note of “the close interaction with the US leadership following the initial pronouncement of President Trump’s policy on South Asia”, which it considered “useful in creating a better understanding of each other’s perspectives on the best way forward to achieve durable peace and stability in Afghanistan.” In particular, the NSC recalled the “robust and forward-looking” discussions with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defence Secretary James Mattis. Pakistan seeks constructive engagement.
Three, the NSC underscored Pakistan’s continuing support for the US-led international effort in Afghanistan. Specifically, it reminded the American side that it is “continuously facilitating… vital lines of communications for smooth counter-terrorism operations in Afghanistan by the international coalition.” On the whole, it is a non-confrontational approach that leaves future options open. Trump has a history of rhetorical outbursts, but some have also transmuted as policies. The probability cannot be excluded that in this case a ratcheting up of pressure on Pakistan is on the cards. But, the context must be kept in view.
Among all the wars (and the “hybrid wars”) that the US is currently fighting, it is the 16-year-old war in Afghanistan that can seriously wound Trump as he begins gearing up to make his re-election bid early next year. In immediate terms, Congressional elections are coming up in November, which will be a crucial dry run for Trump’s campaign, apart from threatening to tilt the balance on Capitol Hill against the Republican Party.
Despite media hype by Trump’s generals, the war in Afghanistan is not going well and may get even more complicated. The appearance of the Islamic State; great volatility in Afghan politics; and, the dysfunctional government in Kabul—things are bad enough. The geopolitical realities are increasingly adverse. The US relations with Russia and Iran are deteriorating, while on the other hand China’s assertive peacemaking role (with the strong underpinning of the Belt and Road Initiative) pulls the gravitas away from American hands. Not a single regional state neighbouring Afghanistan feels that a military solution to the war is any longer viable. Ideally, the US would love to reach a deal with the Taliban if only the latter could be somehow made to agree to the permanent American bases, but that is not a realistic expectation. Pentagon would love to win this war, but then the US will have to deploy at least 2,00,000 troops—current level is 11,000—for which there are no takers in Washington or in other NATO capitals. Pentagon is, therefore, fighting the Taliban through dominance of the Afghan air space, which is hopeless against an insurgent force that enjoys a measure of local support.
Suffice to say, by the language of chess, this is turning out to be “check-and-checkmate”. The crunch time has come. Analysts agree that the bloodiest year of America’s longest war in history is about to begin. The top priority for Washington is that Pakistan reins in the Taliban so that the next ‘fighting season’ doesn’t pose political nightmares for Trump. The White House puts a gloss on it by claiming strategic patience has run out. There could be economic sanctions against Pakistan. But sanctions gain traction only over time, if at all, and Pakistan has lived through US sanctions.
If the US resorts to military pressure, make no mistake, Pakistan will react strongly. It is highly problematic for the US to substitute Pakistani transit routes with the Northern Distribution Network (via Central Asia), which requires Moscow’s acquiescence. On a broader canvas, the US’s Middle Eastern policies as a whole may get degraded, since Pakistan is a nuclear power and an “Islamic power”. A showdown with Pakistan through 2018 means that Trump not only might as well say goodbye to his pledge to contain Iran, but also unwittingly creates new strategic depth for Iran on its eastern borders. Most certainly, Israel will not like that scenario. Of course, any unilateral move by the Trump White House to precipitate a showdown with Pakistan can also put additional stress on the fractures that have already surfaced in the trans-Atlantic alliance (over Iran nuclear deal, Jerusalem and refugees).
Over and above, Pakistan will not capitulate, because it does have legitimate interests in Afghanistan. The bottom line, therefore, is what the present tipping point may ultimately morph into. There has always been a lurking suspicion as to how far Trump personally invested himself in the new Afghan strategy. He has gone along with the Afghan surge largely at the bidding of his generals who promised to show results if only they could have a free hand to wage the war. Trump made it clear even while announcing the new Afghan strategy in August that he wasn’t giving a “blank cheque” to anyone. If Trump doesn’t get the promised outcome, he may at some point begin passing “pink slips” around the national security establishment.
India should not see the US-Pakistani tensions in zero sum terms. These are early days. Trump’s consistency is highly debatable and 2018 is also shaping up as a defining moment in US politics as the inquiry into his alleged Russia collusion comes up with its report. If Trump wins, the winner takes it all. And the authentic Trumpean preference will be to exit unwinnable wars in “Greater Middle East”.