On Saturday, US National Security Adviser Gen McMaster said in a radio interview that President Trump wants Pakistan to change its ‘paradoxical’ policy regarding militant proxies. He drove his point home by elaborating: “[It] is Pakistan in particular that we want to really see a change in and a reduction of their support for these groups. I mean, this is, of course…a very paradoxical situation where Pakistan is taking great losses. They have fought very hard against these groups, but they’ve done so… only selectively.”
I am sure the good general is familiar with ‘paradoxical’ policies aimed at selectivity given US policies in, say, the Middle East? The US-backed forces have fought alongside Iran to combat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. But in Yemen, the US has been helping their proxies repel the Iranian-backed Houthis.
In 2013, when Assad’s forces were losing the war in Syria, Obama refrained from launching airstrikes that could have ended his regime. Four years later, Trump launched a cruise missile attack when Assad seemed close to winning the war. Obama and Trump are heirs to Reagan’s ‘paradoxical’ approach through the 1980s when the US backed both sides in the Iran-Iraq War.
The US media reported earlier this week that during a meeting at the White House on July 19, Trump rebuked his generals for not winning the war in Afghanistan in 16 years. Looks like it all comes down to Pakistan’s ‘paradoxical’ policy in Afghanistan. In other words, it means that Islamabad has been successfully kicking the world’s strongest military for the last 16 years – in which case, changing generals or carrying out a troop surge will not help.
Why should we just single Pakistan out? What about the Afghan government (read: US proxy) in Kabul? What about their responsibility in tackling issues of governmental corruption and an unsure Afghan Army (read: US proxy) that is unable or unwilling to hold its own against the Taliban? Why does it not rein in the Afghan intelligence that is only too happy to collaborate with New Delhi in undermining Pakistan’s security?
Clearly, there is something wrong with the US policy in Afghanistan. It is time that McMaster did some soul-searching to locate the real policy flaw (something that the likes of Ted Poe and Rohrabacher would love to obfuscate). Threatening Pakistan will not help in rectifying the problem because the flaw has more to do with the short-sighted, ‘paradoxical’ US policies that are (mistakenly) supposed to bolster America’s global position and have less to do with Pakistan’s support for any militants
Since 1979, the US foreign policy choices have created space for non-state actors to grow in the Af-Pak region. Playing ‘paradoxical’ games in Afghanistan yet again would not be unprecedented.
The US does not want peace in Afghanistan because chaos allows them to stay put. This raison d’être is good for Congress and American public consumption whose taxes largely support the war effort. Staying put increases US influence and meddling in a region next to a rising China, a rival Iran and the Central Asian markets.
It also provides the space to hobnob with India to keep Muslim, nuclear Pakistan in check – something that has taken on added urgency in the backdrop of CPEC. This is where US-India security interests converge in a tight embrace.
Disorder in Afghanistan suits the US just as it suits them to keep Syria, Libya, Yemen and Iraq in turmoil so as to draw Iran in for a beating and strengthen US allies in the Middle East. Of course, all US actions are wrapped up in the political rhetoric of saving human lives, stopping WMD proliferation and strengthening democracy. Talk about paradoxes.
Confronting the Afghan Taliban that have no quarrel with Pakistan is a red line that our military should never cross. We have already lost more than 60,000 lives in terrorist attacks and suffered economically. It is after years of bloodshed and heartache that the tribal belt is beginning to somewhat breathe again. Why should Pakistan create new enemies at this stage? This might come as a surprise to someone like Trump but the blood running in Pakistani veins is just as red as the one that ran in the veins of those inside American body-bags.
The US has the mightiest military on earth. They should go get the Afghan Taliban in Afghanistan where they control more than 40 percent of territory. And while they are at it, they might as well kill or capture anti-Pakistan TTP fighters who continue to enjoy Afghan sanctuaries right under the American nose.
Regarding the lack of clear US policy guidelines on Afghanistan, McMaster argued in the same interview that “Trump disagrees with the Obama administration’s strategy of announcing everything... That is not the way to fight a war”.
No, Gen McMaster, Trump has not announced a clear-cut Afghanistan policy so far. He can’t tell his knee from his elbow when it comes to this region and he is unable to start learning anything worthwhile about it because he is up to his neck in domestic political scum, largely of his own making. This policy-fog suits the Pentagon that has been given full control of the Afghanistan policy by President Trump.
If the US really wanted peace in Afghanistan, it would use non-militarist, diplomatic means to take all stakeholders on board and play its role as a responsible superpower by helping resolve conflictual issues that continue to hinder resolution. McMaster and his generals are fully aware that winning an endless war is the real paradox.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Strategic Studies,