Speaking truth to power

The Express Tribune
By Zamir Akram

As President Donald Trump, the self-proclaimed ‘stable genius’, dives deeper into vile rhetoric, aptly described by African ambassadors to the UN as “racist and xenophobic”, Americans are understandably questioning his mental faculties. But Trump’s fulminations against Pakistan of “lies and deceit” need to be taken seriously as these are being echoed by responsible Americans, who exercise the immense power of the US. It is, therefore, necessary for Pakistan to speak truth to this power.

It is important for Trump and his generals to recognise that Pakistan will not act against its own security interests in Afghanistan, especially since Washington has been encouraging New Delhi to be its factotum in Afghanistan and the broader South Asian region. Indeed, the very basis of Pakistan’s Afghan policy since independence has been to prevent India from using Afghanistan as a base for destabilising Pakistan and create a second front on its western border to encircle Pakistan. Existing ground realities reinforce these concerns. The TTP is being armed and funded by the Indians and their clients in Kabul to carry out terrorist attacks in Pakistan from their Afghan sanctuaries. The Indians are also supporting Baloch terrorists based in Afghanistan as well. Resultantly, Pakistan is already encircled by India with Kabul’s collaboration, which makes it imperative for Pakistan not to alienate the Afghan Taliban, which provides Islamabad with critical leverage to protect its security interests in Afghanistan.

Moreover, 16 years of fighting against the Taliban demonstrates that there is no military solution. Deploying more troops in an open-ended conflict will not change the ground realities for Washington nor will using Pakistan as a scapegoat for its failures. The only solution is a negotiated settlement arrived through dialogue with the Taliban. This is acknowledged by informed Americans such as the late Richard Holbrooke and more recently Richard Olson, both of whom served as special representatives to Afghanistan and Pakistan. While Trump’s generals claim to accept the need for an eventual dialogue with the Taliban, they want to first defeat them militarily so that they can get a political settlement on their terms. This is futile because the Taliban will not fight and talk at the same time. Besides, the US cannot win on the negotiating table what they have failed to gain on the battlefield.

 

It is ludicrous for the Americans to argue that a few thousand Taliban cannot be defeated by the strongest military in history because they allegedly have safe havens in Pakistan. Actually the Taliban control 40 per cent of Afghanistan from where they operate. Even if the American claims are correct that Taliban leaders move across the border to “plan and plot” from refugee camps in Pakistan, the solution is to seal the border and send the refugees back. But the US is not willing to cooperate in this effort.

Moreover, the Kabul government is corrupt and divided while the Afghan army is plagued by a lack of discipline, motivation and equipment. American troops are not used in ground combat since they do not want to send body bags home, whereas aerial attacks cause civilian casualties that help to swell Taliban ranks. Besides, American failure to contain the drug trade helps the Taliban fund their operations. None of this can be blamed on Pakistan.

Pakistan should also remind the Americans of their own past and present “lies and deceit”. The CIA used Osama bin Laden and his Arabs in the Afghan ‘Jihad’ against the Soviets who formed al Qaeda after they were abandoned. The ‘Jihadi culture’ was actually inculcated in madrassas in Pakistan and Afghanistan on a daily diet of American propaganda transmitted through textbooks prepared by the CIA.

Later, Washington wanted the Taliban to allow UNOCAL, an American company to lay energy pipelines through Afghanistan. Vehement critics of Pakistan today, Zalmay Khalilzad and Hamid Karzai, were then UNOCAL employees. Khalilzad used Pakistan’s help to meet Taliban leaders as did the US ambassador to the UN, Bill Richardson. The Taliban were even allowed to open a liaison office in New York.

Following the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan, bin Laden was cornered in the caves of Tora Bora but US Centcom chief Tommy Franks did not allow his troops to take action, fearing American casualties, which enabled his escape.

The Americans also failed to implement the ‘hammer and anvil’ approach with Pakistani forces on the Pak-Afghan border to kill or capture terrorists. While Pakistani troops were heavily deployed along the border there were hardly any American/Nato forces on the other side. Even so, Pakistan managed to neutralise al Qaeda from its territory, at great cost to itself, a fact acknowledged by the US.

Worst of all, the US ignored Pakistan’s advice to focus on al Qaeda terrorists while seeking accommodation with the moderate Taliban since they were, are a potent force that cannot be wished away. Sixteen years of fighting has proved that. Today, the real threat to the US and regional security is posed by the IS and not the Taliban that oppose the IS. This has led Russia, China and Iran to establish contacts with the Taliban. It is also surprising that while Washington encourages Kabul to engage with the Taliban, such as the recently reported meeting in Istanbul, and even allows Qatar to host a Taliban office, it has taken exception to Pakistan’s contacts with the Taliban.

Meanwhile, Americans continue to seek “common ground” with Pakistan and ask for continued use of its ground and airspace as well as increased intelligence cooperation even as the US refuses to respect Pakistan’s security interests, withholds reimbursement of Pakistan’s Coalition Support Fund money and talks of imposing sanctions. What could be more deceitful?

If the US is truly committed to resolve the Afghan imbroglio, it needs to recognise and accommodate Pakistan’s regional security concerns. Denial of assistance, imposition of sanctions or even military attacks will not change Pakistan’s pursuit of its security interests which are far more important than any relationship with the US. Besides, Pakistan has the leverage to retaliate which would make America’s Afghan misadventure seem like a walk in the park.