Though the present US-Pak bonhomie is Afghan-specific, India will have to be watchful and tread its path carefully in case Khan succeeds to placate the Taliban
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s recently concluded three-day visit to the US and his one-on-one meeting with US President Donald Trump have evoked mixed reactions in India not only due to the latter’s controversial statement but also due to a lukewarm concern displayed by American authorities with regard to terrorism. Relations between Pakistan and the US have been strained ever since the Trump Administration assumed power due to Islamabad’s support to the global jihadi terrorist organisations and its involvement in cross-border terrorism in India and Afghanistan. Though Pakistan’s involvement in cross-border terror in Iran is also well established, the US does not show much concern due to its strategic concerns in the Gulf region.
Pakistan’s continued support to the Taliban and the Haqqani network operating in Afghanistan irked the new US Administration, which put it on notice, threatening to suspend all aid, including the package to its Army. Islamabad failed to read the US’ intent. In the past, it got away playing the nuclear card. The Western world, particularly the US, is scared of the nuclear arsenal falling in the hands of jihadi terrorists operating from Pakistan’s soil and succumbed to its black mail, dishing out doles to it. Trump, however, is different.
“The US has foolishly given Pakistan more than $33 billion in aid over the last 15 years and they have given us nothing but lies and deceit, thinking of our leaders are fools. They give safe havens to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!” — this is what Trump tweeted on the first day of 2018. Pakistan went to the extent of blaming Trump for “flinging accusations at Pakistan,” as he was disappointed at the “US’ defeat in Afghanistan.” Trump responded by blocking American aid of approximately $3 billion that also included the $300 million for the Pakistani Army. The Army-to-Army contact between the two nations was suspended. It was a big setback for Pakistan, which was already going through an economic crisis. Islamabad did try to put up a brave front initially but its dwindling economy, India’s diplomatic offensive in exposing Pakistan, the firm stand of the US Administration and the strictness of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) compelled the Imran Khan Government to take stern measures against the terror industry. Whether these measures are a “show window” to win the trust of Trump and the US authorities (a prelude to Khan’s visit to the US) or is there a sense of seriousness or permanency, only time will tell.
Meanwhile, the US has begun preparations for the next presidential election and Trump has also thrown his hat in the race. He is desperate to have one major diplomatic victory about which he can boast to the American people. His initiative in the Korean Peninsula is not making much headway. The strained relations with Iran are harming him more than helping him boost his image. His high-handed tactics of dealing with other countries have got him more enemies than allies. Both China and Russia also have tense relations with America. Although India is likely to be granted the status of the most-favoured non-NATO ally and is already designated with special STA-1 status, the relationship between the two countries is blowing hot and cold. Many in India perceive the US as a fickle ally. In a nutshell, Trump has more negatives to his credit than positives as far as foreign and strategic relations are concerned. He is desperate to win the Afghan tangle, which is not possible without placating the Taliban. The US also knows that only Pakistan can exert the desired influence on the Taliban. This forms the background of Khan’s visit to Pakistan as far as American perspective is concerned and unblocking the US aid.
Let’s first discuss Afghanistan. India has emerged as a major soft power in Kabul and has a big stake in whatever final settlement takes place. The Taliban has been recognised as the key impediment to the end of conflict in Afghanistan. Earlier, India was elbowed out of the direct negotiations with the Taliban, as claimed by a section of the media. To my mind, it is a deliberate decision by the Government to stay away from direct negotiations with the terror group due to adverse ramifications back home. India, however, cannot be ignored. Sooner than later, we will be involved in the final settlement. India remains steadfast on its traditional position of supporting only an “Afghan-led, Afghan owned and Afghan controlled” process, which includes the duly elected Government in Kabul.
With Pakistan forming a key partner in Trump’s South Asia strategy for achieving a political settlement in Afghanistan; defeating Al Qaeda and IS-Khorasan; providing logistical access for US forces and enhancing regional stability, it certainly has gained an upper hand. That is why Pakistan was included for the first time in the trilateral consultations with Russia, China and the US on the Afghanistan peace process held in Beijing in July.
The entire focus of the US was concentrated on Afghanistan during Khan’s visit, which included the Pakistan Army Chief and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief in the entourage. While Khan has agreed to work with Trump to prod the Taliban to strike a peace deal with the aim of extricating the US Army from its longest war, the latter has dangled the offer of unblocking $3 billion aid to Pakistan if Khan succeeds. Khan said, “I want to assure President Trump, Pakistan will do everything within its power to facilitate the Afghan peace process. The world owes it to the long-suffering Afghan people to bring about peace after four decades of conflict.”
There is no doubt that the US is desperate to exit from Afghanistan but is the negotiation with the Taliban the best solution? The terror organisation has not been reformed and its five-year brutal rule is still fresh in the mind of the Afghans. It certainly suits Pakistan because this will help it achieve its aim of achieving strategic depth and the use Afghan territory to promote terrorism. It will also end the hope of a democratic Afghanistan, disappointing millions who are holding out still for a brighter future. India must, therefore, press for its involvement in the peace talks and ensure that the Taliban does not elbow out the elected Afghan Government. Trump’s desperation can be gauged from this statement, “I could win that war within a week, and I don’t want to kill 10 million people. Afghanistan could be wiped off the face of the earth. I don’t want to go that route.”
India has lot at stake because Afghanistan holds significant economic, security and strategic implications for it. We cannot be a mute spectator and have to ensure that democracy survives in Afghanistan. As far as counter-terrorism is concerned, not much time was devoted to the same possibly to avoid public embarrassment to the visiting premier, whose services are badly needed by the US in view of its leverage over the Taliban, thanks to the safe havens it provides to the group’s leadership. But as admitted by Khan himself, with more than 40 terror groups existing in Pakistan, the situation is very fragile. Any terror attack in Afghanistan or India with mass causalities with proven links to Pakistan will reverse the new-found relationship between the US and Pakistan. The latter will have to tread the path very carefully.
Khan was successful in raising the Kashmir issue during the one-on-one meeting with President Trump. It was a spin-doctored question asked by a correspondent to prevent difficult questions on Pakistan’s involvement in terrorism, which would have caused a lot of embarrassment to Pakistan. The question successfully diverted the topic to Kashmir, when Khan lost no time in seeking Trump’s mediation and assistance in resumption of Indo-Pak dialogue. India has made its stand very clear by stating that talks and terror cannot be held together.
Trump surprised everyone with his signature trademark off-the-cuff remark. He has developed a habit of speaking or tweeting without preparation or proper briefing. His remark stoked a controversy, to which New Delhi reacted promptly and set the record straight. Fearing a strain in Indo-US relations, a number of American bureaucrats and leaders also jumped in to save the situation from worsening. But Trump is Trump and his remark should be seen in the light of his desperation for an early Afghan exit.
But Khan has succeeded to once again to internationalise Kashmir after numerous failed attempts by past Governments. India has to be careful and thwart the ISI’s design to portray home-grown terror groups in India by promoting the proxies of IS like ISJK, Al Qaeda like Ansar Ghazwa-ul-Hind, Hizbul Mujahideen and other IS-affiliate/inspired terror outfits. The ISI will certainly attempt to influence Left-wing extremism as has been exposed by the Pune Police disclosing links between urban Naxals and HM.
Khan’s attempt at reviving bilateral trade, as was evident from the large number of businessmen and traders that formed his entourage and unblock the US aid, has failed for the time being and is in no way going to help him to come out of the current economic mess. It may force him to persist with various counter-terrorism mechanisms put in place, including the arrest of Hafiz Saeed. More arrests are likely provided the Army and ISI permit. The imminent danger of being placed in the blacklist by the FATF may tie the hands of the ISI and Army. So the axe is likely to fall more on Afghan-specific terror groups like the Taliban and the Haqqani network.
The visit has been significant as far as bilateral security cooperation and military-to-military relations are concerned. There is a bright chance of resuming suspended military training programmes for Pakistan. At one point during President Trump’s meeting with Khan, the former also hinted at resumption of the security assistance for Pakistan depending on what both countries achieve concerning Afghanistan. The major plus point was the personal rapport established between the two. There is a great likelihood of a direct tele-line between the two leaders to further cement their bonhomie and smoothen any bureaucratic hiccups that may erupt. Islamabad would like to use such an opportunity to sort out other issues in the bilateral realm.
Will there be a change in the Indo-Pacific strategy of the US? Will Pakistan succeed in elbowing out India from the US equation in the region? Indian diplomats will have to work hard to ward off any such possibility. Though the present bonhomie between the two is Afghan-specific, what shape it takes in the future in case Khan succeeds to placate the Taliban, will have to be watched carefully.
(The writer is a Jammu-based political commentator, columnist, security and strategic analyst)
Writer: Anil Gupta
Courtesy: The Pioneer