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January 7, 2018

Dangerous brinkmanship


January 7, 2018

The New Year message from President Trump, through his belittling and disgraceful tweet accusing Pakistan of being ‘deceitful’, came as yet another rude shock to the helmsmen of this bewildered nation. These strange-bedfellows may well have been deceitful to each other, according to their own convenience. But flying lists of ‘betrayals’ of a client-patron relationship in each other’s face is not going to help sort out Pak-US ‘divergences’.

You can’t beat Trump at his erratic tweets, which are no less strange for his own administration. But no more vs no-more is brinkmanship that can escalate with a single provocation from any side since there are quite a few agent provocateurs and rogue elements waiting to add fuel to the fire.

The Pak-US relationship is now, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson frankly put after his visit to Islamabad, “conditions-based”: you are supposed to do or not do that which the US will do with or without Pakistan, even if it adversely affects the latter. The real question is: what are we to ‘gain’ if we do what the US is demanding – to effectively deny the Haqqanis and the Taliban any kind of facility and take “decisive measures” to curb their cross-border manoeuvrability? And what are we to ‘lose’ or ‘gain’ if we stick to ‘divergences’ from the US policy on Afghanistan and South Asia?

Alice Wells, a senior diplomat and strategist at the US’ National Security Council and one of the authors of the Trump policy on the region, has described the current situation thus: over the last four years Pakistani officials and the Taliban were “hedging against a chaotic departure” of US forces; “what [Trump’s] South Asian strategy gives them is certainly that we are there, we are not going to let the Taliban win; that we are prepared to invest the resources that will be, at a minimum (keep) a stalemate – but a stalemate increasingly in the government’s favour” in Kabul.

The US has suspended the entire security assistance it gives to Pakistan, including $255 million from Foreign Military Financing and $350 million from the CSF, and has placed Pakistan on the watch list for violating religious freedoms. More steps are being contemplated, including removal of the privileged status of being a major non-Nato ally, financial sanctions affecting multi-donors, extended drone attacks, hot pursuit and undefined punitive actions. According to State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert, all US assistance is now linked to taking “decisive actions” against groups, the Haqqanis in particular, that are “destabilising the region and targeting US personnel” In Trump’s National Security Advisor McMaster’s assessment: “Pakistan could be on a path to increase security and prosperity, or it could be on a path to replicating North Korea”, which he thinks is not an appealing model.

Trump’s tweet on Pakistan’s alleged “deceit” is not just a sudden outburst. It was followed by US Permanent Representative at the UN Nikki Haley’s allegation of the “double-game” being played by Pakistan. These reactions, and suspensions of assistance from the highest levels of the Trump administration, have come after innumerable meetings held between top US officials and commanders with the civil and military leadership of Pakistan. The list of the many American demands – which must be before the National Security Committee of our cabinet – will be made public very soon, according to the White House spokesperson. There are two types of US demands: one is about extending the war on terror against groups not targeted so far; the other is about strategic divergences.

So far, both the civil and military leaderships have shown a measure of maturity and have kept their cool. Annoying the US and alienating Afghanistan is not in our interests. Even if we are to double our efforts in strengthening alternative alignments to counter-balance US-India machinations, and find alternative resource to plug our unsustainable current account deficit, we cannot afford to mess with the sole superpower.

Both the US and Pakistan need each other to clear the Afghan quagmire and defeat terrorism in our region. As a matter of policy, and according to the national consensus on the National Action Plan, all authorities and institutions are bound to fight against all kinds of terrorist outfits without any exception and not let Pakistani territory used against any other country. Despite this unequivocal policy, persistent military operations and tremendous sacrifices in men and materials, the US and its allies continue to suspect Pakistan of a “double game”, which was perhaps the hallmark of Gen Musharraf’s strategy, and accuse Pakistan of “using terrorist outfits as an instrument of achieving foreign policy objectives”.

Our diplomatic corps had also been complaining about the “difference in words and deeds” due to which Pakistan’s narrative was difficult to explain. There was a lot of hue and cry when the PM House was suspected of a grave security breach, and the then PM Nawaz Sharif’s two aides had to resign when the rather known differences between the civil and military leadership came into the open through what is known as the ‘Dawn leaks’.

The deposed prime minister has again raised the same issue that he has been raising about the need to resolve such contradictions. Our own national policy against terrorism outlines the end of any kind of support and logistical facilities or safe havens to any groups – whether they are the Haqqanis or Taliban leaders, or the Lashkar-e-Taiba and its cover organisations (the JuD and FiF) and Jaish-e-Mohammed?

Terrorism remains our principal security threat and it should become the main reason for convergence of interests, rather than divergences, with the US and Afghanistan. Some measures have been taken against the LeT and others, and the DG ISPR has also recently revealed that steps taken against the Haqqanis will show results soon. The question is: are we ready to help the US-led coalition in pressuring the Taliban to come to a negotiated settlement, if we are really averse to their takeover of Kabul? Only our greater engagement with the US and Afghanistan can ensure that India is not able to establish its military foothold in Afghanistan. In the current environment, we must be extremely alert against those who could put our security in jeopardy.

At the strategic level, we observe a clear realignment of forces in the broader Indian Ocean-Pacific region where the US has co-opted India, along with other Asia-Pacific partners, as a countervailing force to China’s expanding influence. This leaves non-Nato ally Pakistan in a quandary, especially with the increasing Indian role in Afghanistan. It’s time we revisited our various strategic paradigms, developed by dictators for their self-perpetuation and which have brought us into conflict with all our neighbours. It’s time we took a consistent course against militancy, religious extremism and pursued friendship with all, and enmity with none. We must take a pro-peace approach and give high priority to economic connectivity, sustainable and self-reliant growth – and so make Pakistan a hub of economic activity rather than a country surrounded by hostility and conflict.

Parliament must put Pakistan on the road to peace and cooperation to take our beloved country out of this vicious cycle of internecine conflicts that it has been pushed into over time.

The writer is a senior journalist. Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @ImtiazAlamSAFMA

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