Pakistan has predictably taken serious umbrage following the announcement of the long-awaited American policy review on Afghanistan. Unveiled by United States President Donald Trump last month, the policy, unbound by timelines, seeks an outright military victory over the Taliban [Afghan resistance] and calls upon India to share the burden of economic engagement with Afghanistan.
Trump, overlooking Pakistan’s huge contribution with more than 60,000 soldiers and civilians dead, $120 billion (Dh440.4 billion) infrastructure losses and more, threatened Pakistan, accusing it of providing sanctuaries to the Taliban. Pakistan denies this charge.
The US-promoted Kabul regime surviving on its largesse felt relieved. The new strategy is “focused more on war and rivalry in the region”, said the mercurial former Afghan president Hamid Karzai.
Major regional powers such as China, Russia and Iran criticised the US policy and cautioned against pressurising Pakistan. These statements are evidence that Pakistan is not alone in rejecting the American policy option. No wonder Pakistan’s foreign minister, putting his visit to the US on hold, announced the suspension of all talks with the US. Pakistan also asked for postponement of a visit by a senior US State Department official. The minister has visited China, Iran and Turkey who have reaffirmed support for a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan. The minister is likely to visit Russia before he heads to the US.
In fact, Pakistan’s army chief, who calls the shots in matters of security policy, declared that Pakistan seeks recognition of its fight against militancy, and not aid. Later he bluntly warned that Pakistan, having cleared its tribal regions of militants, would not allow the Afghan war to spill over into Pakistan.
Pakistan seems in a deep introspection mode before it is prepared to engage with the US at any level. Following Trump’s statement, a normally fractured Pakistan stands united in the face of his diatribe.
Trump asking India for help in Afghan war is baffling. Pakistan accuses India of fomenting trouble and promoting terrorist incidents in Pakistan that are planned and executed from Afghan soil. Troubled Pakistan-Afghan relations keep India relevant and Pakistan engaged on its western borders. Giving India a role in Afghanistan will escalate India-Pakistan tensions that have a bearing on peace in Afghanistan. In fact, the plan pitting the arch-rivals against each other is a recipe for perpetual turmoil in a troubled region.
Washington’s entire narrative on ‘terrorism’ is cleverly misleading. Even the doyen of America’s international policy, Henry Kissinger, admits: “What we in America call terrorist, are really groups of people that reject the [US imposed] international system.” It is a strange irony that anyone who differs with the American ‘democratic’ values that is already its deadliest export, is branded as “terrorist”.
In Afghanistan, the resistance has not wavered from its demand of an end to foreign military presence and the ouster of the US-installed regime in Kabul as a condition for peace. Contemptuously dismissing them as Taliban makes for a flawed analysis and consequent wrong policy choices by Washington.
Afghanistan’s landlocked status places it at the mercy of several powers, all ostensibly interested in its stability but wary of a disproportionate advantage to others. And, when the interested players include US (by occupation) Pakistan, Iran, Russia, China and India — five of which are nuclear states — none of them can be taken lightly. But given the geography, history and culture, Pakistan has the most to gain by a stable Afghanistan or lose with its unsettled conditions.
For ten years while the Soviets were engaged in Afghanistan, the US funded Pakistan to provide sanctuaries to the resistance fighters against foreign [Soviet] intervention in Afghanistan. And now, the US is accusing Pakistan of providing sanctuaries to the same people opposing what is now another foreign [US] intervention in their country. Hilary Clinton admitted that US itself created the problem.
The American action has killed hundred of thousands of Afghans but new ones and more are raring to replace their dead comrades, in true spirit of predictive words of Tupac Katari, the 18th century Bolivian freedom fighter, who said in his torturous death, “I die as one. I come back as millions.”
Through the new policy Trump, the third American president involved in this war, actually aims to accomplish more with lesser resources than used in the past. With a weakening appetite to continue fighting in Afghanistan a stalemate remains the likely outcome.
In 1967, when the then US secretary of defence, Robert McNamara, was convinced that the Vietnam War was unwinnable he, had urged the then president Lyndon Johnson to halt bombings to pave way for peace negotiations. The generals pushed back and the war continued for years. Candidate Trump’s instincts were to pull out from Afghanistan, but as President, he has been pushed back by the generals to continue with the American folly that has already turned into a Vietnam.
The US may be militarily the strongest state, but needs to rely on Pakistani ports and road network to resupply American troops in Afghanistan. Sanctions or targeted military against Pakistan will radicalise it further. There cannot be peace in Afghanistan without taking Pakistan on board.
Listen to your instincts, Trump!
Sajjad Ashraf is an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. He was a member of Pakistan Foreign Service from 1973-2008 and served as Pakistan’s Consul General in Dubai during the mid 1990s.