What next after Trump’s tirade against Pakistan?
Regardless of the war of words between the US and Pakistan, the question is: How will America respond to Islamabad's demand for it to ‘do more' when it has been saying ‘no more’
US President Donald Trump’s New Year tweet about Pakistan being a haven for terrorists and having given nothing to the US except lies and deceit, is an unprecedented indictment of Pakistan by America. In an equally unprecedented warning to the US military, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations chief, Major General Asif Ghafoor, cautioned the US against initiating unilateral military action on Pakistani soil. Only once before has a similar warning been issued by Pakistan to the US for respecting its territorial integrity — when a US drone strike killed Afghan insurgents. President Trump’s first National Security Strategy Doctrine has separated partners from adversaries. Pakistan is in the latter category.
Last month, in a New York Times article, US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson urged Islamabad to combat terror groups on its soil. He said Pakistan must not become a sanctuary for terrorists as it had been prior to 9/11. Ever since Trump’s new policy on South Asia and Afghanistan, Pakistan has been at the receiving end of warnings, threats, advisories and admonitions.
On his first visit to Pakistan, US Defence Secretary James Mattis probably did read the riot act after serving notice over safe havens for terrorists, although publicly, he merely said Pakistan should “do more’’, a cliché Indians are bored with. The visit follows President Trump’s stern policy speech on South Asia and Afghanistan on August 21, 2017, in which he flayed Pakistan for harbouring agents of chaos and condemned it in strongest terms. While US Commander in Afghanistan, Gen John Nicholson has said Afghan Taliban leaders are in Quetta and Peshawar, Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua has said there is no organised presence of the Taliban and the Haqqanis in Pakistan.
Mattis-like threats have been issued in the past. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has repeated the Mattis line: “If Pakistan fails to take decisive action against terror groups, the US will adjust tactics and strategies to achieve these objectives in a different way…” Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo went even further, “If they don’t do it, we will do it”. Such intent for affirmative action by US leaders prompted Ghafoor to caution the US on unilateral military action.
Never before in the history of US-Pakistan relations has there been such a barrage of coercion from US leaders on Pakistan to act on “specific things we have asked Pakistan to do” as relations with it will now be ‘conditions based’. No blank cheques to Rawalpindi any more, said a retired US General adding, “All options are on the table: Withdrawing MFNNA, declaring Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism, sanctioning specific entities in Inter-Services Intelligence, curtailing coalition support funds and enlarging drone strikes”. Defiantly, last month, Air Force Chief Sohail Aman ordered shooting down of US drones violating Pakistan’s air space. They have carried out 426 strikes in Pakistan since 2004. A retired Pakistani General speaking on Pakistan TV delivered the tired line of its ‘70,000 terrorism martyrs, RAW perfidy and ‘we do not take dictation from the US...we have nuclear weapons’’.
Americans on their part have been fickle. In the recent National Defence Authorisation Act 2017, the Pentagon removed the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba (LeT) from a Congressional rider that required Pakistan to act against the Haqqanis, the Taliban and the LeT to qualify for Coalition Support Fund. In any case, it will be a long time before the Americans are willing and able to force Pakistan to act against its strategic assets in the East who operate against India.
The Mattis mission was three-fold: First, urging Pakistan, who in Trump’s words, take billions and billions of our dollars and kill our people to act against the Haqqanis (leaving out the Afghan Taliban and the LeT); second, to bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table for resuming the peace process in Afghanistan likely in January next year; third, to re-arrest Hafiz Saeed, who has been given a clean chit by Army Chief Bajwa to contest elections. Last month China was playing the mediator between Pakistan and Afghanistan and persuading Kabul to join the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor and also trying to resurrect the reconciliation process with the Taliban.
Mattis’s “one last chance” has no date line. The Trump Administration is dominated by Generals who have to be seen as being able to get Rawalpindi to act against terrorist groups operating from its soil against Afghanistan. Afghan National Security Advisor Hanif Atmar says he has the coordinates of Afghan Taliban and Haqqani camps inside Pakistan. Afghan Special Forces trained by the US are known to have excelled in operations against insurgents and could cross the line.
Options to convince Pakistan that Washington is serious about its ‘last chance’ have been considered earlier too. The Haqqani network has relocated to Kurram Agency from North Waziristan which has been attacked by US drones. Aman’s orders are to shoot down all drones, including that of the US, that violate the Pakistani air space. There was an agreement between the US and Pakistan for US drones to operate within the tribal areas of Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
Strikes carried out outside the agreed hostile zone have been authorised by the C-in-C. President Trump (and before him, President Obama) has ordered four to five strikes outside the hostile zone on Pakistani territory but no retaliatory action was taken by Pakistan Air Force though the Army Chief did ‘regret’ that this had happened. Drone strikes and grounds raids are actionable options.
Pakistani Generals believe, the US needs Pakistan more than the other way round and will not risk a suspension of logistics support through Pakistan for US forces in Afghanistan by unilateral military action. In 2013, an inadvertent US air attack on a Pakistan border post killing 21 Pakistani soldiers started a cold war. Even so, some high profile counter terrorism action against Afghan terrorists in Pakistan by the US is likely in 2018.
Senator Ryan Paul’s Bill for suspending US aid of two billion dollar and not cancelling it has been welcomed by Janjua, who wants to resurrect a working relationship with the US, although Pakistan Prime Minister Shahid Abbasi has said that Pakistan has spent $20 billion in the last 15 years on counter terrorism operations and in reality, US aid is no more than $10 million. Gen Zia-ul Haq in his time used to taunt the US on its aid calling it ‘peanut’. Regardless of the war of words between the US and Pakistan, the question is what will the US do to Pakistan’s response to its demand to ‘do more’ when it has been saying ‘no more…we’ve done enough’. China has endorsed that statement.
(The writer is a retired Major General of the Indian Army and founder member of the Defence Planning Staff, currently the revamped Integrated Defence Staff)
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