Trump’s August speech outlining his Afghanistan policy clearly denounced Pakistan’s duplicitous policy of selective counter-terrorism.
In the past, political developments in Pakistan have always been keenly observed and analysed both within the government and by thinkers across India. But the Narendra Modi government, with its policy of unilateral “red lines”, has created the impression that Pakistan doesn’t merit much serious attention. The security forces have been given a free hand in the Kashmir Valley and the advent of winter has enabled the curbing of civilian protests despite a number of high-value militants being eliminated, some perhaps as prominent as Burhan Wani, whose killing triggered a wave of stone-pelting and violent protests last year.
In addition, the Donald Trump presidency has emboldened India to believe the United States perhaps finally buys the Indian argument that dialogue with Pakistan can’t coexist with Pakistan-sponsored terror. President Trump’s August speech outlining his Afghanistan policy clearly denounced Pakistan’s duplicitous policy of selective counter-terrorism. Mr Trump’s open invitation to India to play a greater role in Afghanistan was perhaps more to needle Pakistan than to get India to play a security role there. The US is using a similar stick in West Asia, but with the widespread negative reactions to President Trump’s announcement of the US shifting its embassy to Jerusalem and recognising it as Israel’s capital, it remains to be seen if it will really help to bring various Palestinian groups to the table. In any case, the US is not shifting its embassy to Jerusalem immediately, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ministers, after the initial euphoria, have gone silent, fearing that the US will now seek concessions from them.
US secretary of state Rex Tillerson did some plain speaking at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies prior to his trip to India and the neighbourhood. Arriving via Afghanistan and Pakistan confirmed that the threats and cajolements made to Pakistan were in the context of the Trump administration seeking an Afghan settlement, for which Pakistan’s cooperation is essential. In particular, the US wants Pakistan to nudge the Taliban towards dialogue and reconciliation and to severely restrain, if not completely defang, the Haqqani Group. Pakistan has been told from various public forums that unless it complies quickly with the US demands, punitive steps could follow.
What can these steps be? Firstly, drone strikes can be ramped up and go deeper within Pakistani territory. Before the sudden rescue by Pakistan of a mixed US-Canadian couple from the clutches of the Haqqanis, there was some talk of another deep raid by the US like the one to kill Osama bin Laden. Second, the US can revoke the “non-Nato ally” status, ending the benefits that accrue like the nature and price of US weapons which Pakistan can buy. Third, senior officers of Pakistani military and security agencies, particularly Inter-Services Intelligence, which handles non-state assets, can be sanctioned, like for Russia, to demoralise and shame them. Finally, and that may never happen, declare Pakistan as a state sponsor of terror. The US Congress has already given the administration leverage by linking financial packages like the Coalition Support Funds, which compensates for counter-terror work by the Pakistani military, to Pakistani compliance with US demands. The Trump administration has withheld $400 million of such funds now and $650 million earlier.
It was in this context that US defence secretary James Mattis arrived in Pakistan earlier this week. Prior to his arrival, Pakistan had already on November 24 let Hafiz Saeed, a UN-designated terrorist and mastermind of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks of 2008 which killed 166 persons, including six Americans, go free after a year-long and comfortable house arrest on the pretext that no case was made out. In any case, Pakistan has only been using a preventive detention law, useful for short detentions, and made no serious attempt to prosecute him for the Mumbai attack. Pakistan was testing the US to see whether its “terror red lines” would allow their India-specific non-state entities to be now transmutated into political entities and mainstreamed, rather than eliminated.
Further, the Pakistan Army enacted a public charade by refusing to intervene at the request of the civilian government to disperse an unruly mob gathered to disrupt communications outside Islamabad, the capital. The fracas was over the amendment of an oath for electoral candidates substituting “I solemnly swear” with “I believe”. Muslim cleric Khadin Rizvi descended on Islamabad with 5,000 supporters. When the riot police failed to scatter them, the Army, instead of complying with the government’s order to intervene, merely offered to play the arbiter. What followed sullied the democratic evolution of Pakistan as the Army made the civilian government reverse the oath amendment and get rid of the law minister. The amended oath was seen as a concession to the four million-odd Ahmadiyas, treated as religious outcasts. To the Pakistani judiciary’s credit, a high court judge criticised the Army for playing the mediator.
This public theatre affirms the Army’s resolve to weaken the Nawaz Sharif-led PML(N) before next year’s Parliament election and clear the path for its favourite to win. That the unruly group was allowed to leave Lahore may indicate that Nawaz Sharif’s brother Shahbaz, who runs Punjab, may also be complicit as he has not been allowed to become the successor to his brother after the legal troubles of Nawaz and his progeny.
Referring to the US demands for Pakistani action against terror havens, Gen. John Nicholson, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, said on November 28 that “…we have not seen those changes implemented yet”. It is speculated that the US may wait till early 2018, before the Taliban begin their annual spring offensive, to take a call on tightening the screws on Pakistan. Gen. Mattis thus came, read out the list of carrots and sticks, and left. The Pakistan Army has its own gameplan, which would encompass greater dependence on China. But as John Keats wrote, “If winter comes, can spring be far behind”. Unfortunately, spring in South Asia may bring more tensions as the endgame approaches in Afghanistan. Meanwhile India, readying for a spate of state elections and counting on Washington to corral an elusive Pakistan, may find that outsourcing vital national security and diplomacy can prove costly.