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February 16, 2017

Shifting winds and trimming sails


February 16, 2017

In days long gone, old sailors used to rotate their heads back and forth to determine wind direction until they could feel it blowing ‘equally’ across each cheek and the ‘sound’ of wind was the same in each ear. In the context of Pak-US relations, that feeling wasn’t quite so last week. While – in a brief conversation with COAS General Qamar Javed Bajwa – new US Defense Secretary James Matti lauded Pakistan’s role in combating terror, US Commander in Afghanistan General John Nicholson struck quite a different tone in Congress where he called for a ‘holistic review of complex relationship’ with Pakistan.

Frankly, if there is one thing that requires an urgent review it’s the US’s skewed narrative which blames Pakistan for all its failings in occupied Afghanistan while being insensitive to terrorist activities in Pakistan even though the trail almost always leads across the Durand Line. Encouraged by this peculiar narrative, President Ashraf Ghani has been using it as an excuse for inaction and indifference in moving forward on the diplomatic front. His unsavoury remarks on the eve of the Heart of Asia conference in India are an example.

In his interview to VOA, Nicholson also blamed Russia and Iran for pursuing their own agendas in Afghanistan which, as he put it, is complicating the fight against terrorism and extremism. He accused Russia of legitimising and supporting the Taliban who in turn hobnob with Isis. This might be so since Russia, as a neighbour of Afghanistan, is genuinely anxious about the Taliban-Isis nexus and lack of transparency in the US’s own conduct against Isis in the Syrian war. And under the watchful eyes of the US, President Ashraf Ghani has suddenly declared the formerly ‘Bad Talib’ Gulbaddin Hekmatyar a ‘Good Talib’ and embraced him.

James Mattis is a former general and an Afghan veteran who received a waiver from a seven-year waiting period under the National Security Act 1947 before being nominated. He is the second soldier in American history since 1950 to receive such a waiver. From President Donald Trump’s perspective, US defence policy must be in dire straits to warrant ‘Mad Dog Mattis’ (Trump’s words) appointment over so many other competent people in civvies for this important position.

That said, Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are reportedly emerging as strong influences in the new White House administration. Mattos recently offered American support to Japan and South Korea who were rattled by Trump’s hints at mothballing strategic post-WW-II defence agreements. Tillerson similarly got Trump to publicly back off from a ‘review’ of the One China policy which had so upset President Xi that he had refused to talk to Trump unless he retreated from his position.

Trump also took a U-turn on Israel when he cautioned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the US didn’t believe that going ahead with new settlements was a good thing for peace’. On Iran, Trump told the EU’s top foreign policy official Federica Mogherini that the US would fully carry out the nuclear accord signed by his predecessor. Nicholson in his VOA interview accused Iran of extending support to Shia extremist elements in western Afghanistan. US-Iran relations had taken decades to show a slight improvement but now mistrust is deepening due to such insufficiently thought out statements from Washington.

The PML-N government had made much of the free-wheeling post-election telephonic conversation between Trump and Nawaz but it is only a matter of days before Trump loses interest on his promised interest in meditation between India and Pakistan on Kashmir. Two think tanks, the Hudson Institute and the Heritage Foundation, have recently asked the Trump administration to adopt tougher measures against Pakistan in order to evoke different responses from its government for, what it calls, more effective containment and eventual elimination of terrorist threats emanating from its border areas into Afghanistan.

These institutes have called for laying out a sequence and timeline for specific actions required to be taken by Pakistan with regard to ‘terrorists responsible for attacks outside Pakistan’ and for linking these steps to future US military assistance. It has no suggestions for closer Afghan-US-Pakistan military cooperation, as proposed by Pakistan repeatedly, where retreating terrorists from each other’s territory can be effectively engaged militarily. The report claims that activities and operations of ‘diverse terror groups’ on and from Pakistani soil and its government’s failure to rein them in threaten vital US interests in the region. Again it offers no words of support for border management efforts being undertaken by Pakistan in order to significantly curtail illegal and undocumented movements across border which is central to incidents of terrorism.

It also does not comment on the organised and consistent destabilising campaign in Balochistan by India, a strategic ally of the US, for which irrefutable evidence has been handed over to the UN. The report further alleges that Pakistan has never changed its policy of supporting certain militant groups that fight Afghan and coalition forces, thus making it impossible for the US to achieve its objectives of keeping Afghanistan away from reverting to safe haven for international terrorism – in other words an open-ended occupation of Afghanistan.

Trump reversed his campaign positions on China, Israel and Iran but Pakistan is seen as a soft country which hasn’t done too well in forcefully putting across its existential security concerns in Washington and the UN. The special assistant to the prime minister, Tariq Fatemi, was reportedly unable to meet any important member of Trump’s transition team during his last visit. A foreign minister might have had better prospects but Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, for reasons best known to him, is stubbornly resisting calls for removing this aberration in his team. It is therefore quite likely that gung-ho military advisers might succeed in nudging the Trump administration, frustrated by its own missteps, to take some hasty measures which could only complicate matters further.

In any such contingency, Pakistan must stay the course in matters where its core national interests are jeopardised, and brace for a period of uncertainty ahead. After a lull, terrorism is back in Pakistan as evident from a spate of nasty incidents. It is in our own interest to fully implement all facets of NAP on which there is a consensus from all political parties. For Afghanistan, we must appoint a suitable point man – someone like the late Gen Naseerullah Babur – who is taken seriously in Kabul, which sadly isn’t the case with the present team.

Pakistan has been through such US reviews in the past and can almost predict its various contours. Sans cognizance of Pakistan’s concerns, such ‘reviews’ haven’t worked in the past nor are likely to in the future. As long as the US pursues narrow objectives in Afghanistan and is not interested in addressing the core issue – to bring back over 42 percent of disenfranchised Pakhtun populations in the mainstream of the economic and political activity of Afghanistan through a diplomatic solution acceptable to all stakeholders – peace and stability will remain elusive in this blighted region. Nowhere in military conflicts have narrow objectives, even if attained transitorily through reviews, ever brought closures to disputes unless they are part of a holistic roadmap.

The writer is a retired
vice admiral.

Email: [email protected]



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