Looming face-off

Print edition : February 16, 2018

Activists of the Difa-e-Pakistan Council protesting against the U.S. in Karachi on January 2. Photo: ASIF HASSAN/AFP

Donald Trump. Photo: Carolyn Kaster/AP

Pakistan Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi addressing a National Security Council meeting in Islamabad. The Pakistan government summoned the U.S. Ambassador in a rare public rebuke after U.S. President Donald Trump lashed out at Islamabad with threats to cut aid over "lies" about combating terrorism. Photo: AFP/Handout

A house gutted at Jora village 35 km from Ranbir Singh Pura in Jammu district, on January 21, following firing from across the Pakistan side of the border. Photo: Channi Anand/AP

Jamat-ud-Dawa chief Hafiz Saeed addressing an anti-United States rally in Lahore on December 17, 2017. Photo: K.M. Chaudary/AP

A diplomatic confrontation is on the cards with the Trump administration resorting to punitive measures against Pakistan for failing to curb terrorist activities and a shocked Islamabad coming out with a measured and calibrated response.

RELATIONS between the United States and Pakistan have been going downhill for a long time. As the new year began, bilateral relations floundered further following the Donald Trump administration’s decision to suspend nearly $2 billion in military and financial aid to Pakistan. The decision followed Trump’s tweet that Pakistan was an untrustworthy ally and despite the U.S’ paying “billions and billions of dollars… they are housing the very terrorists we are fighting”. Following the announcement of aid “suspension”, a senior U.S. official warned that further “unilateral” action would be taken if Pakistan did not take tougher actions against “terrorist havens” on its soil.

The U.S. has indicated that drone attacks targeting militants along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan would be extended into Pakistani territory if Islamabad did not get tough on terror groups such as the Haqqani network. This group, owing allegiance to the Afghan Taliban, has roots in the tribal areas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. U.S. intelligence agencies allege that the network has the covert protection of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies. U.S. drone attacks are an emotive issue in Pakistan. There is also the looming threat of the U.S. depriving Pakistan of its status as “a major non-NATO ally”.

In his nasty tweet in the first week of January, Trump lashed out at Pakistan for making “fools” out of U.S. leaders and giving “nothing but lies and deceit” in return for the $33 billion worth of aid that the U.S. had provided in the past 15 years. There were no words of gratitude for Pakistan’s support to the U.S. in its decade-and-a-half-long military occupation of Afghanistan.

Of the $2 billion the Trump administration has blocked, $255 million was frozen in 2017. This money was part of the U.S’ direct funds for the Pakistan military for 2016. Another $900 million, which was withheld, was part of the “coalition support fund”, that is, payment to Pakistan for rendering help in the fight against insurgents in Afghanistan. The previous Barack Obama administration, too, had cut aid to Pakistan to register its displeasure over the alleged lack of cooperation in the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan. U.S. aid worth $800 million was suspended in 2011. Another $300 million was suspended in 2013.

Trump’s actions have angered as well as shocked the Pakistani establishment. But the response so far has been a measured and calibrated one. The Pakistan Foreign Minister, Khwaja Asif, initially said that the alliance between the two countries was effectively over following the U.S. decision to suspend aid. The U.S. Ambassador, David Hale, was called to the Foreign Office and given a dressing down after Trump’s “lies and deceit” tweet. Since 2003, more than 30,000 Pakistani soldiers and civilians have fallen victim to terrorism.

Pakistan released Jamat-ud-Dawa chief Hafiz Saeed from “house arrest” soon after the U.S. suspended aid. Saeed has been on the wanted lists of India and the U.S. His name is on the designated terrorist list of the United Nations. Pakistan Prime Minister Shahid Khan Abbasi said in the second week of January that there was “no case” against Saeed in the country despite the U.S. State Department demanding his prosecution “to the fullest extent of the law”.

If Pakistan closes the supply route for the U.S. troops in Afghanistan in retaliation for the Trump administration’s move, the U.S. could face a serious problem. Pakistan closed the supply route for six months in 2012 and reopened it only after the Obama administration agreed to pay $365 million annually for the privilege. Pakistan had closed the corridor after U.S. planes “mistakenly” targeted two Pakistani border posts, killing 24 soldiers. The only other supply route for the U.S. will be through Uzbekistan. That route has been in operation for many years. But Russia has a lot of leverage over the Uzbek government.

Pakistan has denied that it has been providing sanctuary and support for groups that are fighting against the U.S. and the Afghan government. It has launched massive counterterrorism operations within its territory, but some groups close to the Afghan Taliban have slipped through or been allowed to slip through the Army’s dragnet. The Pakistani political and security establishment, knowing very well that the endgame in Afghanistan is not far away, wants to have some important cards to play in the ongoing “great game” in Central Asia.

China’s support for Pakistan

In the looming diplomatic face-off with the U.S., Pakistan has got support from its “all-weather friend” China. The Pakistan economy has received a boost after China decided to promote the $62-billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Russia also seems to be getting closer to Pakistan on many issues as India is locked in a tight strategic and military embrace with the U.S. Russia has started selling arms to Pakistan, and the two countries have also signed “a military cooperation agreement”. Russia has agreed to sell Mi-35 helicopters and Klimov R39 engines for Pakistan’s JF-17 multi-role jet fighters. Moscow and Beijing seem resigned to the inevitable victory of the Afghan Taliban. Their main concern is to ensure the creation of a stable Afghanistan after the U.S. withdraws fully.

Once the U.S. leaves Afghanistan, the vacuum will be filled by the Afghan Taliban, which has the support of the Pashtuns, the biggest ethnic group in the country. According to most experts on the region, the U.S. threats will not make Islamabad change its Afghan policy. From the Pakistani perspective, the Taliban is the only pre-eminent fighting force in Afghanistan and it does not make much sense to alienate it at this juncture. The Obama administration had tried to engage the Afghan Taliban in talks. In fact, in the second week of January, there were reports that senior officials from the Afghan government had met Taliban officials in another effort to kick-start the peace talks. Even Iran, which at one time considered the Taliban a serious threat, seems reconciled to its return to power sooner or later.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, on a visit to Washington in the third week of January, predicted that the Afghan Army would not last six months if U.S. troops left the country and that the government, too, would collapse. On the campaign trail, Trump had railed against the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan and Iraq. The U.S. has spent more than $1 trillion and lost 2,400 soldiers so far in the war in Afghanistan, which has now lasted more than 16 years. Afghan leaders, like former President Hamid Karzai, have blamed the U.S. for facilitating the rise of the Daesh (Islamic State) in Afghanistan. The Daesh and the Afghan Taliban are at daggers drawn.

Karzai has also been a vociferous critic of Pakistan’s role in the internal affairs of his country. In a recent interview, he said that the U.S. and Pakistan had played an extremely negative role “as backers” of the Afghan resistance against the Soviet Union. “Pakistan and the United States did the most horrible activity of trying to weaken the traditional Afghan system, weakening our moderation, our tolerant society and turning our religion into an extremist tool,” Karzai said. He expressed the hope that Pakistan would at least now realise that it was used by the U.S. against its neighbour “for a purpose that was not human”. Karzai added that what the U.S. was doing to Pakistan was similar to what his country had experienced. Trump’s goal, Karzai said, was “to prevent the economic development and integration in the region”.

Trump, while outlining the contours of his South Asia policy in August last year, had assigned an important role for India in Afghanistan while being critical of Pakistan’s role. The Trump administration would like nothing better than India sending troops to the battle-ravaged country. Better sense has prevailed in New Delhi with the Indian government confining itself to providing economic assistance, building infrastructure projects and offering training for officers of the armed forces and the police. India does maintain a high-profile diplomatic presence in Afghanistan much to the chagrin of Pakistan. Pakistan claims that Indian intelligence agencies are active in Afghanistan and helping Baloch separatists and other anti-state actors.

Doval-Janjua secret meeting

While the Trump administration has resorted to punitive measures, India is ramping up the pressure on Islamabad. Although New Delhi has admitted to a secret meeting between the National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and his Pakistani counterpart, Lt Gen. Nasir Khan Janjua (retd), in Bangkok in the last week of December, there are no signs of improvement in bilateral ties. The firing along the Line of Control (LoC) has intensified since the beginning of the year. Around 20,000 villagers on the Indian side have been evacuated. Last year there were more than 820 ceasefire violations. Thirty-one Indian soldiers were killed in 2017. Civilian casualties on both sides of the working border have been much higher.

In December, Janjua issued a warning saying that the possibility of a nuclear war breaking out between the two countries was now real. The Indian Army chief, Gen. Bipin Rawat, who has been given unprecedented freedom to speak his mind, threatened Pakistan with fire and brimstone on January 15, on the occasion of Army Day. While accusing Pakistan of resorting to unprovoked firing along the LoC to facilitate the infiltration of terrorists, Rawat said that the Indian Army may “resort to other action by stepping up the military offensive”. Rawat said that if it came to war, Pakistan’s “nuclear bogey” would be exposed. “If we have to really confront Pakistan and if a task is given to us, we are not going to say that we cannot cross the border because they have nuclear weapons,” Rawat said. Pakistan has been saying that in a full-fledged war, it will resort to the use of tactical battlefield nuclear weapons.

The Pakistan Foreign Minister tweeted that the Indian Army chief’s comments “amount to an invitation for a nuclear encounter”. He boasted that Pakistan was ready for such an encounter: “They are welcome to test our resolve.” The verbal brinkmanship between senior officials is scaling new heights. However, most military and strategic experts rule out a conventional war breaking out between the two countries. After the Pokhran nuclear tests of 1998, the military superiority India had over Pakistan was frittered away. Now there is conventional nuclear parity between the countries. All the same, it should be remembered that there are hotheads on both sides of the border who occupy important government positions. Then there is the U.S. President who describes himself as a “stable genius” but keeps on talking about the “big” nuclear button at his disposal.

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