Decoding Trump's tweet

| | in Oped
Decoding Trump's tweet

The purpose of Trump's tweet was to demonstrate solidarity with India on Pak-backed terrorism but also to bring Islamabad and New Delhi to the talks table

The stoppage of USD 255 million military aid to Pakistan for 2018 within hours of US President Donald Trump’s tweet-threat to Pakistan is water off a duck’s back. In 2010, the US military aid to Pakistan was USD 1.24 billion; it came down dramatically in 2011 when Osama bin Laden was found and killed in Pakistan; and it was measly USD 316 million in 2016. All this happened quietly through official channels. So, what was the Trump bluster about?

To be sure, we have not heard the last on US relations with Pakistan. There is no Afghanistan solution without Pakistan’s involvement. With China having accelerated its involvement with the recently held trilateral with Afghanistan and Pakistan, the US, if it severs functional ties with Pakistan, would be compelled to hand-over the Afghanistan trophy to China leading to the realisation of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor’s (CPEC) extension to Afghanistan and Central Asian Republics.

The purpose of Trump’s tweet was perhaps to demonstrate solidarity with India on Pakistan-backed terrorism with a twin purpose. One, to encourage bilateral talks between India and Pakistan to reduce chances of nuclear war and arms race between them; and two, to ensure success in the coming two-plus-two dialogue between India and the US.

The theatrics of Trump’s action and Pakistan’s equally strong reaction might have appeared credible if the two sides had not travelled this path before. After 9/11 attacks, when Pakistan was geopolitically unimportant, US President George Bush’s Deputy Secretary of State, Richard Armitage has warned General Pervez Musharraf to stop harbouring terrorists or be prepared to be bombed to Stone Age. Musharraf publicly acquiesced, yet managed to fool the US and world through his duplicitousness, and yet garnering Major Non-Nato Ally status for Pakistan. Earlier, after India’s 1998 nuclear tests, when US Deputy Secretary of State, Strobe Talbott visited General Jehangir Karamat’s Headquarters in Rawalpindi to persuade him to not do nuclear tests, Karamat made it clear that “Pakistan would look out for its own defence.” Writing in his book, Engaging India, Talbott writes that Karamat cautioned him that arm-twisting Pakistan would not work.

Trump cannot be oblivious to US’ roller-coaster relations with Pakistan, and the fact that the Pakistan Army would not compromise on three subjects: its nuclear weapons, Afghanistan, and Kashmir. Especially when Pakistan today is geopolitically in a strong position, with China certain to veto any move by the US to place Pakistan under UN sanctions or have it declared as state sponsoring terrorism. Moreover, Pakistan’s recent army chiefs have little admiration for US values. In a prophetic statement, General Karamat had in May 1998 told Talbott: “Because of the suspension of the training programme, he was probably its last Pakistani graduate who would rise to the position of chief of the army staff. His successor (s) was less likely to be imbued with as much goodwill towards the United States.”

Given this, Trump's tweet was directed at India, with which the United States wants a deep strategic relationship on its terms. Moreover, the news that Pakistan had decided to ban Hafiz Saeed’s charities and might take them over was a charade by Pakistan under China’s pressure. Beijing wants peace between India and Pakistan to find a mutually acceptable solution to India’s sovereignty concerns about the CPEC passing through Pakistan occupied Kashmir. Thus, it was US urging India; and China pushing Pakistan for bilateral peace talks. Incidentally, secret talks were held by National Security Advisors of India and Pakistan in Bangkok on December 26. What next?

The big challenge for the NSAs was to devise a broad-based dialogue format so that once both sides have stated and restated their known positions, the talks do not hit the wall. Given the two sides’ dissonance on the Kashmir issue, talks on nuclear and conventional matters and futuristic technological destabilisers (in which Pakistan is interested) should be part of discussions. This, unfortunately, is unlikely for two reasons. One, Indian diplomats, who are averse to including military in negotiations, would prefer to keep talks on military issues generic rather than technical and incisive. Secondly, India refuses to talk nuclear and conventional war matters with Pakistan on grounds that its main threat lies elsewhere (China). Therefore, unless India and Pakistan show determination to make peace, bilateral talks, if they happen, will not go far. This explains why India and Pakistan have agreed to only activate the NSA channel for the time being. This would also keep the two backers - the US and China — satisfied. 

US' other hope is to have a successful two-plus-two (between the two foreign and defence ministers) talks where Washington's agenda is to eventually get India in a tight embrace by harmonising India’s geo-strategic interests with its own. India wants a holistic discussion with the US on a range of issues including Pakistan, China, Afghanistan, Middle East, defence trade and technology transfer, freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific region, the Quadrilateral dialogue, and the US' offer to partner with India to build roads and ports connectivity as an alternative to China’s One Belt One Road. The US, on the other hand, favours a step-by-step approach knowing well that the two geo-strategic agendas are poles apart. High on its list would be arms sales through the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) route in order to build interoperability between the two navies and air forces for joint freedom of navigation maritime and air patrols across the Indo-Pacific region, and India becoming the net security provider in the Indian Ocean region. India will resist this since it would require it to sign the US’ fundamental agreements (which are seen as detrimental to its autonomous foreign policy), and doing so might jeopardise relations with Russia.

Even on arms sales, the US is unlikely to sell best-technologies that might appear to destabilise the military balance between India and Pakistan. For example, the US has still not agreed to selling Avenger unmanned aerial vehicles which are weaponised or armed Guardian maritime surveillance UAVs. This is because it wants to retain good relations with Pakistan despite its perpetual cheating. Given fickle geopolitics, where two power blocks led by the US and China are vying for space, India, as a potential major power, needs to review its foreign policy objectives. While it is fine to keep good relations with all major powers, and to give importance to the neighbourhood nations which are slipping into China's orbit, this will not be enough. India's foreign policy would need to give special attention to China for cooperative rather than confrontationist outcomes.

(The writer is editor FORCE newsmagazine) 

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