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August 28, 2017

The real game begins


August 28, 2017

We are doing what we do best: cry over spilt milk. The spurt of anxiety and outrage that the country has seen in the wake of Donald Trump’s South Asia review is understandable. It is fully justified. The Trump administration, by singling out Pakistan as the mother-lode of all trouble in Afghanistan and in the region, has done a wrong thing. This can only take its policy in the wrong directions and, possibly, entail disastrous consequences. Also it is India that provided the ink to the pen that signed on this egregiously off-the-mark review of the region.

Donald Trump is an ignoramus, who, like all ignoramuses, is addicted to creating sensation. His generals and lobbyists have used his ignorance to set him on a course that has already sunk better presidents before him, but he doesn’t know that.

We do know, though – or, at least, we should have known. The shock and regret permeating our response – summed up in the press release of the National Security meeting last week – is hollow. There is little element of surprise in what has come out of the White House. Signals from the US were clear that they would lock onto Pakistan and blame it for all that ails the region: terrorism, freely operating terrorist groups and a long list of scuttled peace efforts. Not one, but dozens of US representatives struck the same chord since Trump came to power.

Not one but several messages that came from seasoned Pakistani diplomats in the US conveyed to Pakistan’s military and civilian representatives that things did not look good in the US as far this review was concerned. More recent engagement between the two countries made it clear to everyone that Trump had decided to go in the crazy direction of practically designating Pakistan as an unfriendly/enemy state.

So there was no dearth of real information as far as this policy drift of the US was concerned. But, of course, information is only as good as the capacity to process it. All the while this policy review was underway the entire focus inside Pakistan was on managing the JIT to put the government in power in a hurt-locker situation. For its part, the government – unfocussed and distracted in the best of times – became totally clueless about and uninterested in pushing Pakistan’s own narrative on the perennial problems of Afghanistan’s peace. Indian lobbyists had a field day just when we were busy lobbing bombs of shame on each other at home.

Even earlier the drag of an engineered domestic fracas in the name of ‘national interest’ inside Pakistan had caused national debate to be totally off kilter and cut off from the dangers to Pakistan’s core security that Trump had brought with him upon arriving at the Oval Office. When Trump won the election and had caused elation in some circles in Pakistan, we had argued the following in this column space:

“He may turn towards foreign policy to find short-term relief. Fighting terrorism with new vigour can become his rallying cry. Military expeditions can become his refuge from domestic disorder…There is little that can be offered to the divided Americans at this point as a middle ground. Little except the old idea that America can be made secure by creating foreign policy success. A spectacular spectacle outside the US can generate the much-needed bond to connect the two poles…Inevitably, the topmost issue in such a situation will be terrorism, which Trump and the Republicans’ warped worldview associates with all Muslim countries. Here their gaze will turn towards Afghanistan and Pakistan…In this respect he (Trump) can be like Narendra Modi who came to power by splitting his nation at the seams and is now trying to win national legitimacy by waving the threat of terrorism. A Trump in the Modi mode can be a truly dangerous thing. We better watch out.” This was end 2016.

Some months later, the following reflections on the India-US nexus under Trump and Modi were penned:

“Delhi, backed and encouraged fully by Washington, wants Pakistan to be defined as a state nurturing terrorism. It wants to dilute its credentials as a reliable international actor. And it wants to set the stage for a case for delegitimising its defence capability, which includes the nuclear arsenal, by framing it as an international threat. These are three dangerous Ds. This is the actual aim.” This was early 2017.

Almost three months ago, this was written: “Washington in its recent communications with Islamabad has been delivering blunt, Trump-like messages to Pakistan. What it is saying is this: give up support to the Haqqanis; kill them all; and those in your custody, hand them over. Pakistan’s repeated assurances that we do not protect the Haqqanis nor do we have the influence to change their behaviour cut no ice with Washington.

“American National Security Advisor H R McMaster in this recent engagement with Pakistani representatives has done extremely tough talking. He has warned of punitive measures in case the US hostages are killed or any US interest is threatened by the Haqqanis in a future event.

“We can guess what these threatened ‘punitive measures’ can be. They can range from Salala-like incidents of heavy attack on Pakistani posts to aerial raids on designated ‘camps’ a la the OBL raid. Worse still, they can use the dirty bomb whose rehearsal has already taken place inside Afghanistan with devastating effects on ground.” This was June 2017.

A few others had also pointed out in vain that we needed to pay attention to a fast-changing regional scenario and stop waging domestic wars amplified through a hijacked media and its fakesters. Yet the power of folly was too strong to be defeated by the value of logic and evidence. And now when Washington has laid bare its intentions with a made-in-India logo all over them, we are being treated to an unimpressive show of hurt pride and national honour.

Even this outcry about ‘Washington’s stupidity’ misses the crux of the matter. It is not a contest of logic, morality or who has more wounds and betrayals to show to shame the other party. It is madness on our doorstep that has already arrived. And since it is already declared and announced, there is very little scope of its declared aims to change. Trump’s generals have completely numbed his non-existent foreign policy sense. Therefore, his ownership of the policy is total, dangerously bombastic, and can be truly challenging to our core security interests. A strike inside Pakistan’s territory can practically get us embroiled in war with the US. This is not a joke. This is deadly serious business.

Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of the current state of regional emergency our country is faced with is the lingering idea that somehow the US can be engaged to achieve national goals if the militaries are talking to each other. Even after being defeated repeatedly by history, the idea refuses to die. Ayub Khan was chums with Washington but in the end had to get Friends not Masters ghost-written to express his feeling of being scorned and jilted. Ziaul Haq turned Pakistan upside down for American pleasure and his own politics but weeks before his death was heard saying: deal in coals and you get a black face.

Gen Pervez Musharraf repeated Zia’s feat. In fact, he went a step ahead. He signed on US demands without even reading them properly. He too was abandoned when the hour of strategic need had passed. General Ashfaq Pervaiz Kayani had the deepest of engagements with the US but in the end saw the Salala and OBL operations take place behind his back. Gen Raheel Sharif restored institutional links in the US only to find out that he could not stop enhanced drone strikes inland. And, yet, we believe that somehow if the military-to-military equation is stable Washington can be influenced.

It is unfortunate that nothing teaches us anything. Neither history, nor events, nor declared policies and known intentions. Dealing with Washington (or, for that matter, India or any other country) is a holistic job. It is a full-time job. It cannot become an interval in pursuit of crazy domestic agendas that are injurious to internal stability. Nor can it be reduced to moral outrage and perfunctory post-event meetings. Trump’s threats are real. We can either play domestic games or deal with the real game that has begun to unfold fast around our borders. Dealing with Washington would be a lot easier if we had our priorities straight and history-reading accurate.


Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @TalatHussain12

The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV.