Grasping at Straws

Spearhead Analysis – 01.11.2017

Something that has been evident for many years is the durability and progressive deepening and broadening of the US-India relationship. As of now the relationship is spread over the tenures of three US Presidents and three Indian Prime Ministers. To deny the fact that the US has placed all its strategic bets in South Asia on India is to ignore the eight-hundred-pound gorilla that straddles the US-Pakistan relationship.

Recently the US Ambassador to the United Nations, and wannabe US secretary of State after Tillerson, asked India to ‘keep an eye on Pakistan’. Perhaps she did not know that India for all its big power aspirations keeps both eyes on Pakistan and obsesses about it with over eighty percent of its defense assets deployed against Pakistan. Alice Wells, a senior US diplomat for South Asia, was not very diplomatic when she said that Washington looks forward to seeing practical steps from Pakistan ‘over the next few weeks or months’. She did not add ‘or else’ but did go on to say that ‘it’s up to them (Pakistan) if they want to work with us—and if they don’t then we’ll adjust accordingly’. Trump’s ‘new’ policy for South Asia if read correctly by Pakistan implies that for the US, India is to be the hegemonic power in South Asia. Tillerson’s visit to Pakistan did not do anything for US-Pakistan relations and Pakistan’s foreign minister gave the details of their discussions in his briefing to the Senate.

Should any of this be a surprise for Pakistan? After all Obama called Pakistan ‘an abysmally dysfunctional country’. Former Chairman Joint Chiefs Mike Mullen called the Afghan Taleban a ‘veritable arm of (Pakistan’s) ISI’– and this after Pakistan had cooperated with the US for years in spite of the uncertainty over the US endgame in Afghanistan. Moreover the US Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of State have accused Pakistan of not doing enough by asking it to do more.

What does the US want from Pakistan? The answer to this has to be in the context of wanting to set up India against China both in the South China Sea and in South Asia and for this India has to be suitably motivated—a no frills transactional alliance. The Afghan President beleaguered politically, at the mercy of the US for economic support –and his own survival– is being used as a tool as has been evident from his dash to Delhi after meeting Tillerson at the Bagram Air Base and his recent disinterest in trade through Pakistan unless India gets access and his preference for trade through the Iranian port of Chahbahar being developed by India. The US wants Pakistan to fall in line and fight the Taleban alongside the US, India and Afghanistan. The fact that at least 45% of Afghan space is under Taleban control and that 85% of the world’s opium is produced in Afghanistan—largely in areas under Taleban control—and that over 600 kilometers of the Afghan-Pakistan border is not under Afghan government control are matters that the US ignores as it pressures Pakistan over ‘sanctuaries I in Pakistan and links with the Taleban. India, of course, is a sovereign country and will do what is in its own interest—being used against China and lured into Iran and Afghanistan when the US opposes Iran and uses Afghanistan may not be what it wants.

Why doesn’t Pakistan do what the US is asking it to do? In the absence of dialogue with India and total hostility from that country as well as Afghanistan– and the atrocities by India in Kashmir, Pakistan cannot possibly agree to Indian-Afghan collusion against it. Pakistan does not want to fight Afghanistan’s war, or the US war in Afghanistan, on its soil because this what would happen if Pakistan were to move against the Taleban on the US side in the present environment. Pakistan’s policy is based on its own security concerns and within this constraint it is doing what it can. It has shown that it can and will act on actionable intelligence by rescuing the US-Canadian couple though the CIA did try to create doubts even after the US president had thanked Pakistan. Pakistan is also fencing the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and has set up additional posts and surveillance and control measures. Neither the US nor Afghanistan have been supportive of these steps for reasons that remain obscure. From Pakistan’s point of view, the new US policy is creating confrontation in South Asia and will not lead to cooperation and stability. With its ‘conditions based’ timeline in Afghanistan the US needs Pakistan and instead of threatening it and pressurizing it through Afghanistan and India the US needs to talk to Pakistan if President Trumps policy is to be given the best chance for success.

What should change? The US should encourage an India-Pakistan dialogue to normalize bilateral relations. The US should ask India to review its present policy on Kashmir. The US should encourage Afghanistan to take steps for good bilateral relations with Pakistan because this would lead to subsequent steps and cooperation in many areas. The US, in its containment of China, should not oppose the CPEC and nor should it encourage India to destabilize Pakistan through covert activities. Once the regional environment has stabilized then steps can be taken with all on board to mainstream the Afghan Taleban politically and eliminate the spaces being used by terrorists that are exploiting the present turmoil and violence.

(Spearhead Analyses are collaborative efforts and not attributable to a single individual).