Trump’s Pakistan policy dilemma

Spearhead Opinion – 24.07.2017

By Shirin Naseer
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

A five-member delegation led by US Senator John McCain visited Pakistan earlier this month. During the visit, Senator John McCain lauded Pakistan’s counterterrorism efforts and reiterated the significance of the Pak-US relationship for both countries.

At a time when the bilateral relationship seems to be at a nadir, the senator’s remarks and acknowledgement mark a sharp turn in US’s anticipated hardened approach towards Pakistan. Prior to McCain’s visit, President Trump had issued a warning to Islamabad over Pakistan-based militants allegedly launching attacks in Afghanistan, saying Pakistan needs to take immediate action against militant groups if the country wishes to continue its relationship with the US.

The ‘Soft Power 30’ report, released by Portland Communications earlier this month revealed that the United States has fallen to third place, behind the United Kingdom, due to its promotion of nationalist rhetoric instead of international alliances.

Jonathan McClory, one of the authors of the report said, “A reduction in American soft power ultimately means a diminished ability to lead on shaping global events.”

In recent weeks it seems the Trump administration has increased emphasis on the dynamic with Islamabad while it hammers out a regional strategy to be presented to Trump. The visit reflects the state of confusion within the Trump administration on drafting a workable strategy for Islamabad and the future of US influence in the region in general.

Currently, there are two camps within the US administration: one of which borrows from Trump’s tough approach towards Pakistan and believes that in order to get results the US must take tough actions, forsake ‘soft diplomacy’ and compel Pakistan’s military to change its perception of existential threats. The other camp’s approach is more empathetic. It recognizes that Pakistan is faced with constraints of its own and these must be accounted for in formulating any approach that would require for the US to be tough on Pakistan. It is clear by the tone of the delegation that John McCain is representative of the latter camp.

McCain’s Pakistan visit and his approval of Pakistan’s counterterrorism efforts are both reflective of the divide within Trump’s team. It is clear that a significant part of the administration believes that in order to resolve the Afghan conflict, the US will have to work with Pakistan, and for that to happen building a cordial relationship is critical.

Considering that Afghanistan is politically and ethnically divided, and the Afghan security infrastructure has so far been unable to tackle military challenges, it is even more important to work with Pakistan, rather than against it. A suitable Afghanistan policy should take into account the role of not only the Afghan leadership but also of Pakistan in resolving the Afghan crisis. This understanding would explain some of the recent statements coming out of Washington on Pakistan’s security conundrum which have an empathetic tone. The realization that pushing the envelope any further would only drive Islamabad away from Washington’s sphere of influence seems to be dictating the stance of the camp advocating meaningful engagement with Pakistan.

At this point, increased diplomatic engagement with Pakistan is US’s best bet against terrorism and in writing down an effective Afghanistan policy– one that does not risk rupturing bilateral relations.

Solely blaming Pakistan for Afghanistan’s own shortcomings, with respect to the lack of political unity domestically and Afghanistan’s existing ineffective counterterrorism policy is unlikely to get desired results.

The US is faced with two alternatives: it can either continue to a fight a war in Afghanistan forever or it can use its military presence in the region to broker a settlement between the Taliban, Afghanistan and its neighbors. A settlement based on international partnerships will likely be a far better guarantor for peaceful US withdrawal and lasting stability in the region.

The Afghan President Ashraf Ghani recently told a visiting US delegation that Afghanistan will be conducting joint raids with Pakistan along its shared borders, which will be monitored by the United States. Supporting joint counterterrorism operations is a far superior strategy choice rather than one founded in threatening and moving to isolate as key a stakeholder as Pakistan in the Afghan crisis.