Until about Pakistan’s 70th birthday, Islamabad looked to Washington for support. Help came when the United States was interested in Pakistan for its own strategic reasons. Suddenly this changed when Donald Trump became the United States president.
Even before the current president took up residence in the White House, Pakistan’s relations with the United States were complex. There were many ups and downs; relations cooled and warmed depending mostly on Washington’s strategic needs. On three occasions, the United States walked away, leaving Pakistan to its own devices.
This happened in 1965 when Pakistan fought one of its many wars with India; in 1988, when the Soviet Union pulled out of Afghanistan and Pakistan was not needed any longer as a partner in the weakening Communist power in Asia; in 1998, when Pakistan defied the United States pressure not to test nuclear weapons and indicated its intention to develop a large arsenal of nuclear weapons along with medium-range missiles that could deliver them.
The United States was back in September 2001 when it needed Islamabad’s support to punish the Taliban regime in Kabul. The Taliban had not only welcomed Osama bin Laden to establish a base in their country for his organisation, al Qaeda, it looked the other way when Osama’s supporters launched devastating terrorist attacks on the United States. Pakistan provided the support America needed but Washington felt it did not do enough. It is threatening to not only leave Pakistan again but to punish it as well. The forms of punishment have been hinted at but have not been spelt out in any kind of detail. Nicki Haley, the United States ambassador to the United Nations and a person of Indian descent, suggested that India — her country of origin — should keep an eye on Pakistan.
Those who are in charge of making the Afghan and Pakistan policies in Washington have background in the military. They were involved in some manner or the other with the long war in Afghanistan. John Kelly, a retired military officer, appointed by President Trump to the important position of the White House chief of staff, is one of the policymakers. He lost his son when he stepped on an improvised explosive device (IED), which was believed to have been made in a factory in North Waziristan. Out of this personal tragedy has grown the strong belief that Pakistan needs to do much more to clear the border areas of all Islamic groups. Not only that, Pakistan is required to move against the non-state groups active in other parts of the country.
President Trump is said to have little knowledge of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The result is the militarisation of the making of foreign policy affecting this part of the world. For obvious reasons, military leaders believe that force works better than diplomatic engagement. That is likely to be used in this highly-volatile area of the world. Would this work? The clear answer is no. But before getting to the answer, it might be useful to reflect on the overall tone of the evolving Trump Asia policy.
On 3rd November, the American president left for a 12-day visit to Asia. It would take him to Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines in that order. South Asia was to be left off the itinerary since the Afghanistan-Pakistan policy announced from a military base on August 21st had already dealt with one of the pressing issues faced by the American president in the Asian continent. In Japan and China, Trump met Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Xi Jinping. Both leaders had gained stature in their own countries, the former by winning a lopsided victory in the national election and the latter by successfully presiding over the five-yearly Congress of the Communist Party. That meeting in Beijing had given new strength to an already strong leader. But Donald Trump seemed not to have prepared himself well for the Asia visit.
But the Asian leaders were clear on what they wanted. They are interested in an open trading system and in containing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Japan will seek to keep alive the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement that Trump tried to scuttle by walking out of it. The TPP members met without the United States shortly before Trump arrived in Tokyo. In Seoul, the main item on the agenda was the development of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme that showed no sign of slowing down in spite of the threats lobbed at the country by Trump.
It was the visit to Beijing that would be really consequential for the United States and its relations with the South Asian subcontinent. The United States as well as India had opposed the Road Belt Initiative the Chinese referred to as the RBI. It is the signature programme identified with President Xi and it is unlikely that the Chinese would accommodate Washington’s and New Delhi’s concerns. And this brings me back to the question I asked earlier about the difference between the fourth — the one currently underway — the US exit from Pakistan and those that came earlier.
Washington’s earlier departures worked since they were the result of what the Americans regarded as “missions accomplished.” In the late 1960s, Washington saw that it had succeeded in blocking the advance of communism in Asia. In the late 1980s, it was happy with the humiliation suffered by Moscow in its Afghanistan adventure. In the late 1990s, the United States was taking a principled position on the spread of nuclear weapons. This time around, however, it is very unlikely that the new Afghan policy would work and that the country would be pulled together again and governed from Kabul.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 13th, 2017.