By M K Bhadrakumar
In the chronicle of India-Pakistan relations, seldom – if ever – would political rhetoric have descended to the gutter level as happened this week when Pakistan’s top diplomat, Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif called the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi a “terrorist” and mocked at Indians in general for electing a “terrorist” as their head of government.
Frayed nerves? Panic mode? The heart of the matter is that Pakistan is finding itself in an unenviable position with the US stepping up pressure on it to shut down its activities of cross-border terrorism. The two top ministers in the US President Donald Trump’s cabinet – Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defence Secretary James Mattis – are playing the good cop and the bad cop respectively. And it adds to the Pakistani angst.
Asif paid a brief visit to Washington for a meeting with Tillerson on Wednesday. According to the Pakistani Foreign Ministry account, Tillerson said some nice things to him. But elsewhere in Washington, DC, Mattis and the chairman joint chiefs of staff Joseph Dunford tore into Pakistan and threatened the country that hard times are ahead unless it genuinely bid farewell to the terrorist groups. If Tillerson’s exchange was private and confidential, Mattis and Dunford hit out openly while testifying back-to-back Senate-House hearings on October 3. (If you have the time, do watch the 3-hour long hearing before the House Armed Services Committee.)
It is up to Pakistani diplomats to figure out whom to take seriously – Mattis and Dunford or Tillerson. Of course, for the generals in the GHQ in Rawalpindi, there won’t be any confusion. Mattis and Dunford have unequivocally asserted that Trump’s new Afghanistan strategy involves a big shift in the manner in which the war will be conducted. They spent the better part of the Congressional hearings explaining the nuances. They explained that:
- The war narrows down to a test of wills and breaking the Taliban’s will requires that conditions are created on the ground that render continued fighting on their part to be futile. “What it means is that the Taliban decide to stop killing… and sit down, as some of the small groups have, and start working with the Afghan government. Some of them will peel off early. Some will fight to the rugged end. But the bottom line is we will fight and talk at the same time… The bottom line is we are going to go after al Qaeda. We’re going to go after ISIS. And if the Taliban wants to break with them and stop killing people and rejoin the political process, then we see reconciliation as the way we will end this war.”
- The US and NATO advisors will be henceforth deployed on the front lines alongside the Afghan forces. This will involve deployment of several thousands troops from NATO and the US who will actually accompany the Afghan forces to the combat zones. They will be authorized to call in US and NATO air strikes to support the ground operations. “Make no mistake, this is combat duty…” (Mattis) There shall be no restrictions on air power; nor will there be any requirement for “proximity” to provide close air support. In effect, Afghan forces will henceforth fight with full western air support.
- “There was always a sense that the United States was going to pull out in 12 months. And the Taliban, frankly, fed that message to their fighters, and that’s how they motivated their people year after year, was, ‘One more year in a fight, and then we’re going to defeat the coalition. They are going to leave Afghanistan.’ ” (Dunford) But henceforth, there shall be no timetable for victory, no announced withdrawal date, so the Taliban cannot just wait out the US.
- Washington favours the idea of presidential and parliamentary elections being held next year and, in fact, “we’ll see the Afghan’s ability to perform the security function associated with the elections as being a very good indicator as well” of the efficacy of the US strategy. (Mattis)
- The new plan is designed to be “fiscally, militarily and politically sustainable” over time. “It will require a U.S. presence increase in the short term, but in the long term this is about leveraging the 300,000 Afghan forces that we have grown over the course of 16 years, but just inadequately supported for here over the last two.” (Dunford) “Certainly, we may have advisers there 10 years from now, but the Taliban will not be the enemy they are.” (Mattis)
Importantly, Mattis said there will be a united front in confronting Pakistan with spelled out expectations for changing its behavior. “What you’re going to see is 39 nations all in the NATO campaign working together to lay out what it is we need Pakistan to do, and then we’re going to use a whole government international effort to align the, basically, the benefits and the penalties if those things are not done.” Mattis warned Pakistan of global “diplomatic isolation” and losing its “non-NATO ally” status if it failed to take action against safe havens to terrorists on its soil. “If our best efforts fail, President Trump is prepared to take whatever steps necessary,” he said.
Mattis assured the lawmakers that the US has “enormously powerful number of options” if Pakistan does not follow through and be a better promoter of stability in the region. As he put it, “Right now, I would like to think we will be successful. With the growing consensus against terrorism, they’ll (Pakistanis) find themselves diplomatically isolated. There is an awful lot of advantage to Pakistan of coming online with the international community, and we have to stay focused there, but the penalties are just as significant as the advantages if they choose to go a different direction.” All in all, Mattis made a series of hard-hitting remarks:
- “What we are doing right now is we are aligning what Department of Treasury, Department of Defence, the Intelligence Committee, Department of State, say, this is what we must ask Pakistan to do to change its behaviour.”
- “Pakistan has lost more troops in this fight against terrorist than nearly any country out there. And yet at the same time, as you know, there’s been some parsing out where some terrorists have been allowed safe havens. We’re out to change that behaviour and do it very firmly.”
- “We’re not going to back off. It will start with assistant secretaries coming out of Washington and the National Security staff members going into Pakistan soon followed by the Secretary of State… I will go in and we have (NATO) Secretary General Stoltenberg’s very clear support for this… So we’re going to continue to build this up in an international way with a whole of US government argument for the Pakistanis to work in their own best interest and ours.”
What emerges from the above is the high probability that a US/NATO confrontation with Pakistan may ensue if the US/NATO forces suffer casualty. Mattis’ offer to work “one more time” with Pakistan must be juxtaposed with the scathing judgment by Dunford that “it was clear that the ISI had connections with terrorist groups”.