Spearhead Analysis – 02.11.2017
By Syed Murtaza Zaidi
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research
“…but words can never hurt me”
During the 2016 US election cycle, both Presidential nominees were repeatedly asked for their views on Pakistan and the prevalent security situation in South East Asia. It was perhaps one of the few topics that both, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, agreed needed closer examination, due to the complicated security situation of the region as well as Pakistan’s status as a nuclear power and its various disagreements with both India and Afghanistan. However, even then, Trump was not afraid to admit that he would be taking a tough stance against the government in Pakistan, and since his accession to power, he has been true to his word.
President Trump highlighted one of his first true policy decisions regarding this region, in a speech he made at Fort Myer military base in Arlington, in August of this year. In it he underlined his plans for South East Asia and specifically laid most of the blame for the unrest in the region on Pakistan, citing their alleged support for terrorist organizations like the Haqqani Network and the Taliban as the reason behind his criticisms.
He stated that “the security threats we face in Afghanistan and the broader region are immense. Today, 20 U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations are active in Afghanistan and Pakistan – the highest concentration in any region anywhere in the world.” He also added that “for its part, Pakistan often gives safe haven to agents of chaos, violence, and terror”.
He talked further about Pakistan and the role of terrorist agencies by saying “we must stop the resurgence of safe havens that enable terrorists to threaten America, and we must prevent nuclear weapons and materials from coming into the hands of terrorists” and that “Pakistan has also sheltered the same organizations that try every single day to kill our people. We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting. But that will have to change, and that will change immediately. No partnership can survive a country’s harboring of militants and terrorists who target U.S. service members and officials”.
This was a damning verdict and was brusquely rejected by the Pakistani public, government officials, and the media. Many people around the country took offense to these allegations, and pointed out the great losses Pakistan suffered while participating in the seventeen-year-old Afghanistan conflict. There was even talk of cutting off the NATO and US Armed forces’ supply routes between Pakistan and Afghanistan in retaliation. However, there were some who were alarmed by the severity of Trump’s remarks, and worried that one impetuous decision from either side, could lead to catastrophic results.
The situation was not helped any further by US Defense Secretary James Mattis’ remarks to a House Armed Services Committee hearing, in which he said “We need to try one more time to make this strategy work with them, by, with and through the Pakistanis, and if our best efforts fail, President Trump is prepared to take whatever steps are necessary”. He also added that if Pakistan did not comply with the US’s wishes, then “they’ll find themselves diplomatically isolated, they’ll find themselves economically in increasing trouble” and there was also an option to expel them from NATO as well. These comments were perhaps even more shocking, as they were construed as a thinly veiled warning from the Trump administration to Pakistan to set their house in order once and for all, or else the US would not hesitate in doing it for them.
Friend or Foe?
While the US government is attempting to play hardball with Pakistan and forcing them to take immediate action against the extremist factions that have taken refuge in the country for so many years now, their stance against India has been far more conciliatory.
In the same Fort Meyer speech in which President Trump accused Pakistan of harboring terrorist organizations, he also mentioned India as a potential ally in the US fight against extremism in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. He stated that “a critical part of the South Asia strategy for America is to further develop its strategic partnership with India” and that “We appreciate India’s important contributions to stability in Afghanistan, but India makes billions of dollars in trade with the United States, and we want them to help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development”. However, he also warned that “the threat (of terrorism in the region) is worse because Pakistan and India are two nuclear-armed states whose tense relations threaten to spiral into conflict”.
These statements were not well received in Pakistan, who feared that under Trump, the US would rather look to India as their key ally in the region, and provide them with the same strategic support that Pakistan had enjoyed for so many years. They were also concerned with Trump’s endorsement of India’s growing influence in Afghanistan, as it was counterproductive to Pakistan’s efforts at limiting Indian presence in the region. They have long accused Indian intelligence agencies of using Afghanistan as an outpost to launch covert operations in the country, especially to rile up unrest in the turbulent region of Baluchistan.
Last week, U.S Ambassador to the U.N, Nikki Haley, reaffirmed the Trump administration’s stance on India and the important role they are expected to play in South east Asia. She stated that “We are really going to need India’s help in Afghanistan. They are the good neighbors and partner that we have in the region” in an apparent dig at Pakistan.
Most troubling for the Pakistani government however was her assertion that “(India) can also help us to keep an eye on Pakistan”. In an answer to a question, she said that “it is going to be really important in making sure that we hold them (Pakistan) accountable” and added that “we need to see better partnership from Pakistan. We can’t continue to see them harboring the terrorists. We have to see something change” and that “India is going to be witnessing that. India is going to help us with that”.
China and CPEC
One of the major reasons behind the Trump administration’s increasing reliance on India has been their resolve to actively oppose the growing influence of China in the region, a sentiment shared by India as well. Both governments have been apprehensive about the partnership between Pakistan and China, and have strong reservations about CPEC, and its possible impact on the geopolitics of the region.
Trump, for his part, has done his best not to aggravate the government in Beijing ever since taking power, even though these efforts have not always panned out, like his surprising tweet at the height of the US-North Korea standoff. He wrote “I am very disappointed in China. Our foolish past leaders have allowed them to make hundreds of billions of dollars a year in trade, yet … they do NOTHING for us with North Korea, just talk. We will no longer allow this to continue. China could easily solve this problem!”.
Diplomatic gaffes aside however, Trump has been rather reserved when tackling the issue of China, which is in stark contrast to the statements he made against them during his election campaign. While talking about President Xi Jinping and his recent reappointment as leader of the country for the next five years, Trump was full of praise for his Chinese counterpart, saying “He represents China, I represent the USA, so, you know, there’s going to always be conflict. But we have a very good relationship. People say we have the best relationship of any president-president, because he’s called president also”.
Nevertheless, it is clear that the US government has serious doubts about CPEC and that they fear that once China has direct access to the oil rich middle east, as well as markets in Iran, Russia and Europe, their status as a global superpower will be assured. In this vein, they have supported India’s claim that, since the corridor passes through the ‘disputed’ territories of Gilgit and Baltistan, which the government in Delhi assert is a part of Kashmir, it cannot be legitimized in the eyes of the US. Talking about the project, US Secretary of Defense Mattis stated that “The ‘One Belt, One Road’ goes through [a] disputed territory, and I think that in itself shows the vulnerability of trying to establish that sort of a dictate”. He also added that China’s plan to connect the world through this one road initiative is not legitimate, considering that one country cannot take control of such a large scale venture on its own.
Even though the Trump administration has been quite scathing in their remarks against Pakistan, this policy seems to have shifted in recent weeks. The speech President Trump made at Fort Meyer was publically disparaged by Islamabad, but it also managed to alarm many US government insiders, who have since taken steps to appease the, naturally, irate Pakistanis. In a meeting between US Ambassador David Hale and Pakistan’s National Security Advisor Lt Gen (retd) Nasser Khan Janjua, Hale pointed out that “the US recognized Pakistan’s sacrifices in the war on terror” and he hoped that they would continue to play a “cooperative role” in the future as well. He also clarified that the US supported a greater role for India in Afghanistan from an economic stand point only, and that they were not expected to provide any military or security aid whatsoever.
In another sign of improving relations, earlier this month it came to light that US Intelligence agencies and the Pakistan Army worked together to free Canadian Joshua Boyle, his American wife Caitlan Coleman, and their three children from the clutches of the Taliban. They had been held captive for over five years and all three children had been born in captivity, where the family had suffered all kinds of abuse from their abductors. According to a press release from the Pakistan government, the army took action in this joint operation on “actionable intelligence from U.S. authorities”.
The press release comes following President Trump’s remarks from the previous day, when he alluded to this operation by saying “Something happened today where a country that totally disrespected us called with some very, very important news. And one of my generals came in, they said, you know, I have to tell you, a year ago they would have never done that. It was a great sign of respect”. Later, Trump finally praised Pakistan by name for all their efforts in securing the release of the captives, saying that even though “In this administration, we will call evil by its name”, the US is now beginning to “have a real relationship with Pakistan, and they’re learning to respect us as a nation again, and so are other nations”.
Donald Trump has been in office for just about a year now, and his tenure has been rife with issues, controversies and disputes, punctuated by moments of success. His time in power has been entertaining for some, alarming for others and to some it has even been inspiring. But for the people of South East Asia, it has been quite baffling.
While he has been unforgiving in his remarks against China and Pakistan, first during his campaign trail and then after taking control of the White House, and he has made grand gestures of friendship towards the governments in India and Afghanistan, even promising to find a swift resolution to the problems affecting the latter; all of his statements have proved to be mere words.
In Pakistan’s case, his comments were construed to be a little too harsh for one of the US’s oldest and closest ‘Non-NATO’ ally and forced his administration to back track on many of his claims, even promising Pakistan a leading role in any future security operations conducted in Afghanistan or in the Waziristan Area. Many people took notice of this slight change in US tactics when dealing with Pakistan, and even the Indian opposition leader and Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi tweeted “Modi ji, quick; looks like President Trump needs another hug” in response to Trump’s earlier tweet in which he talked about how the US was “starting to develop a much better relationship with Pakistan and its leaders” and that he wanted to “thank them for their cooperation on many fronts”.
If there is any hope for a lasting and peaceful resolution to the difficulties in the South East Asian region today, then Donald Trump does not seem to be the ideal man to resolve these problems. While past US Presidents have likewise been hard on Pakistan for harboring terrorists, have taken part in the conflict in Afghanistan and have made friendly overtures to the Indian government as well; they have all managed to do it in a relatively diplomatic and efficient way so as to not affect their own relationship with each country. However, by pitting India and Pakistan against one another in Afghanistan, and by antagonizing Iran and China, by threatening to revoke the former’s Nuclear Deal and by opposing the latter’s CPEC, Trump seems to be taking a risky gambit that might have far reaching and dire consequences for parties involved.