New American Strategy in South Asia Targets Pakistan

By Zubeida Mustafa

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s return to Washington after a hectic week in South Asia and the Middle East leaves us speculating on the purpose and result of his mission.

World attention was focused on his exercise in diplomacy for no other reason than that his trip was a follow-up on President Donald Trump’s announcement in August of a new South Asia strategy.

One would believe the move to be a simple case of the U.S. pushing for its goal of defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan and bringing peace and stability to the war-torn country. The new strategy spells a major shift in tone that seems to say, “America means business.” This can have a deep impact on regional politics. As is his style, Trump does not adopt a low-key or discreet stance. As a result, he alienates even potential allies.

The key features of his administration’s strategy are:

• U.S. troops will be ramped up in Afghanistan. “We will fight to win,” Trump said.

• American military will be given more autonomy in planning attacks on the Taliban.

• Washington will continue to seek a political settlement in the region.

• Pakistan will have to stop providing safe-haven for terrorists. Trump was definitive when he said, “We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars, at the same time they are housing the very terrorists we are fighting. … That must change immediately.”

The president also called on India to “help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development.” His stated rationale for this was the advantage India derives from its massive trade with the U.S.

America’s top diplomat was mercifully more subtle in his choice of words than his boss. But semantics failed to clear up the ambiguities in the American security plans in the region.

Because Pakistan is the main target of what many saw as American pressure, the reaction in this country was the most negative.

Top leaders in Islamabad of all political loyalties, who have not always been on the same page with the military on its Taliban policy, were equally vocal in expressing their displeasure with Tillerson. The chairman of the Senate (the upper house of Pakistan’s Parliament) likened Tillerson’s attitude to that of a “viceroy.” Foreign Minister Khwaja Asif mockingly pointed to the failure of the U.S. to curb the insurgency in Afghanistan, saying that the secretary of state could not even leave the U.S.-built Bagram Air Base during his visit. In fact, Tillerson’s visit to Kabul wasn’t announced in his itinerary and was shrouded in secrecy. This indicated the country’s low level of security despite 16 years of American military presence there. Pakistan’s foreign minister categorically refused to be a “scapegoat” for U.S. failures in Afghanistan.

What clearly emerged is that the U.S. is determined to destroy the safe havens of terrorists with or without Pakistan’s support. These havens include that of the Haqqani network, which is said to enjoy the Pakistan military’s backing. Tillerson gave a list of 75 names of so-called terrorists to his host, demanding that they be handed over or that information on their whereabouts be supplied to the U.S.

Yet in his post-visit briefing in Washington, Tillerson insisted that the U.S. had not made any demands on Pakistan. He did not use the word “demand”—a new vocabulary was created for the occasion. The word “expectation” substituted for “demand” and “good and open exchange” replaced “lecturing,” but both sides knew what was being hinted at. The undertone was clear. What remains a mystery to the public are the consequences of noncompliance, which Trump had indicated earlier would not be disclosed for strategic reasons.

It is not clear what is in store for Pakistan. The government has put on a brave face, and three days after Tillerson departed from Islamabad, the Foreign Office issued a statement asking the U.S. not to supply spy drones to India, as it would destabilize the region. America’s embrace of India is also disturbing for Pakistan.

It is not clear what role India would be encouraged to play in the region. Ostensibly it is to step up its economic activities. But it is understood that economics can lead to enhanced political clout, as well as military influence, in Afghanistan. This could exacerbate India’s already fraught relations with Pakistan. The constant worry is that rising tensions could trigger a nuclear war.

International politics in the region are more complex than they appear at first sight. Perhaps that explains why nothing was reported about the Pakistani army chief’s reaction to Tillerson’s visit, though he attended Tillerson’s meeting, along with the prime minister.

A number of existing splits make it a challenge for the center to hold in Pakistan. In addition to the basic civil-military divide, there is the alienation between the provinces, irreconcilable differences and infighting among political parties, the mushrooming and metamorphosis of militant groups pitted against one another and the polarization between the classes. Civilians in Pakistan are vulnerable and defenseless against the terrorists. All this is taking place in an economy that depends heavily on foreign aid.

One has no inkling of the strategy the U.S. plans to adopt. Will it be one for which a precedence exists? Simply step into Pakistan’s territory to execute its foreign policy piecemeal? This will evoke a reaction from the Pakistani public as well as the army.

The Abbottabad operation in 2011 convincingly demonstrated the U.S. capacity to act on Pakistani soil without cooperation from the host country. Osama bin Laden was seized and killed by SEALs transported by American helicopters, which flew over Pakistan’s air space without being challenged.

According to a New York Times report, a similar operation was recently considered to obtain the release of a Canadian-American couple and their children. The couple had been abducted by terrorists in 2012 and were being held in Pakistan. The Pakistani army pre-empted this blatant violation of Pakistani territory by taking steps to have the captives released just a week before Tillerson’s departure from Washington.

Is this to be the future shape of military operations? Will American boots be seen on Pakistani soil? The drones that attack from the air are not as effective or accurate and inflict high collateral damage.

Another cause for disquiet is the Trump administration’s obvious move to kill two birds with one stone. Trump wants to tame Pakistan and mobilize Saudi Arabia and a few other states in the region to form an anti-Iran coalition to neutralize Tehran’s growing influence. This would explain Tillerson’s need to act as a mediator between Riyadh and Doha—Qatar’s capital—and participate in the Saudi-Iraq Coordination Council while extending support to Saudi policy in Yemen. Trump recently pulled out of the Iran deal negotiated by his predecessor and is now polarizing the region.

Beyond his ambition to control the oil-rich Persian Gulf region lies Trump’s goal of countering Beijing’s loudly touted One Belt One Road Initiative, designed to make China a world power. Pakistan perceives the initiative as the only countervailing force to resist American economic hegemony.

These moves will create dilemmas for Pakistan, given its own ties with these countries—relationships that often require skillful navigation through stormy shoals.

The fact is that U.S. diplomacy today has gone far beyond the sinister aim disclosed by the Jimmy Carter-Zbigniew Brzezinski team of making Afghanistan the “Vietnam” of the Soviet Union in 1979. This strategy worked effectively and led to the dismantling of America’s archenemy at the time, the USSR. Islamabad pitched the support of its war machine behind the Afghan “freedom fighters,” who operated from sanctuaries in the border areas of Pakistan. This operation, known now as “Charlie Wilson’s war” or “Operation Cyclone,” received massive aid from the U.S.

The success of the Afghan “jihad,” which combined religious zeal with military prowess, was instructive for Pakistan. It learned how foreign policy could be conducted by using nonstate actors to infiltrate unfriendly neighbouring countries, ultimately destabilizing them to achieve military-cum-political goals. Throughout the 1990s, Pakistan adopted this strategy in Afghanistan, as well as in the Indian-held Kashmir Valley. This has continued in the post-9/11 period as well.

It needs to be remembered that there comes a time when Frankenstein’s monster loosens itself from the clutches of its creator. The Taliban, the freedom fighters of yesteryear, have turned on their benefactors, whether the erstwhile ones (the Americans) or the current ones (Pakistan’s intelligence agencies). The Pakistan army, like American forces, also has lost many soldiers at the hands of the terrorists.

At the root of these troubles is the failure of India and Pakistan to peacefully coexist 70 years after their birth. In the absence of coexistence, Pakistan always feels threatened and in need of strategic depth. In plain words, Pakistan needs a friendly Afghanistan on its border.

Trump’s new policy indicates another shift in U.S. South Asia strategy. He appears to have abandoned the even-handed stance Washington conventionally adopted vis-a-vis the two major powers of the region. This balance was missing during Tillerson’s visit. The secretary of state later disclosed that he had offered to help resolve the Kashmir issue, but he never explained why this offer—or its outcome—was not publicized during his visit.

Trump would do well to read up on history. I would recommend William Dalrymple’s “Return of the King,” which recounts the 19th-century Great Game, when Britain tried to effect a regime change in Kabul by going to war. Reviewer Tom Kyle summarizes a key section of Dalrymple’s work:

It was a sharp-eyed young officer on the walls of Jalalabad who saw him first, slowly riding a bedraggled and exhausted pony across the barren plain at the foot of the high mountain passes of Afghanistan.

When a rescue party reached him, they found a shadow of a man, his head sliced open, his tattered uniform heavily bloodstained.

He seemed more dead than alive but, when asked ‘Where is the Army?’, Assistant Surgeon William Brydon managed to reply: ‘I am the Army.’

It was January 13, 1842, and the 30-year-old Scot was all that remained of the British force that had invaded Afghanistan three years earlier.

The Army of the Indus, comprising 20,000 soldiers and twice that number of camp followers, had set off in the spring of 1839 to fight in the First Afghan War.

Trump should remember, too, that there were no Taliban or their Pakistani backers then.

Source: Truthdig

 

No trashy issue

TWO seemingly insignificant events could amount to the writing on the wall for our municipal administrators all over the country. It is plain, the public will no longer turn a blind eye to poor sanitation. People are now beginning to understand the implications of environmental pollution.

Recently, the inhabitants of a village in Fatehjang tehsil (Punjab) protested against the garbage dump which the district municipality had created near their homes. Some of them actually travelled to Islamabad to meet the director of the National Commission of Human Rights to lodge their complaint. They were not happy with the odour that pervaded their homes. Even more encouraging was the fact that the inhabitants of neighbouring villages refused to allow the DMO to pile garbage near their homes when he tried to shift the dumping site. Continue reading “No trashy issue”

A Global Conglomerate of Oppression

Noor Zaheer

By

The pronounced lack of interest in the public health system in Pakistan is not difficult to explain. Public opinion in a country as stratified and uninformed as ours, is created and moulded by the so-called privileged classes, comprising those members of society who have the means to pay for private health care. Hence they are not affected by the abysmal state of health care in the public sector on which the poor depend.

The general attitude is: what is the role of the poor in our society? They are useful only for domestic labour in the homes of the rich or for menial work in public places and factories. And, of course, to vote at election time. A higher birth rate among the impoverished ensures there is never any shortage in the labour force. If they fall sick, they are easily replaced. With limited skills and training, none are really indispensable. Continue reading “A Global Conglomerate of Oppression”

An erratic coalition

By Rifaat Hamid Ghani

geust-contPakistan has done many stupid things within the rubrics of foreign and domestic policy. And joining a coalition of predominantly Arab states against ‘terrorism’ where the terrorist and the nature of the activity are defined ad lib could prove one of the most regrettable. There is such a thing as rational neutrality, but it seems to be something with which we are non-aligned.

Of course we are financially indebted to Saudi Arabia (the coalition’s convener) more recently and currently than we are indebted to Iran: But that could also be because Iran has been sanctioned out of prosperity; rather the way Saddam’s Iraq was. And the coalition’s focus is on Iran and Shi’ite ‘insurrectionary’ segments or regimes Iran may be sympathising with in the very troubled Middle East and Gulf states. Iran has never taken a side that is overtly or covertly hostile to Pakistan or vice versa. Are we coalescing to create adversaries for ourselves and foster sectarian differentiations? Continue reading “An erratic coalition”

Peace women

By Zubeida Mustafa

THE Tehreek-i-Niswan and Sheema Kermani have always been at the forefront when matters of peace are at stake. Many performances by the Tehreek have been directed at protesting the brutality of violence against and oppression of women. Hence it was quite in keeping with its character that the group convened a ‘peace table’ on Oct 15, at the Karachi Arts Council. Here hundreds of women and also men assembled to reinforce the widely held, but unimplemented, belief that female involvement in peacemaking improves the chances of lasting security.

A landmark resolution (1325) was adopted by the UN Security Council 15 years ago calling for women to be included in decision-making positions at every level of peacemaking. It has so far made a nominal impact. The head of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, admits that globally “women’s participation at peace tables is still symbolic or low”. Continue reading “Peace women”

14 August: A Day for Sombre Reflection

By Adil Zareef
guest-contributorAugust 14, is traditionally a day for rejoicing, much fanfare, military parades, display of firepower and nukes. Symbolically, the patriotic chest thumping and feet stomping at the Wagah border between the erstwhile “traditional enemies” touch a feverish pitch as hysterical crowds on either side cheer their highly charged and battle ready soldiers, hoisting their national flags amid fierce expressions in a crescendo of sloganeering at sunset – the climax of the existential confrontation refuses to ease or ebb with time, despite the epoch making history that has transformed the greater part of our world.

Perhaps we are condemned by history or by geopolitics, or both, keeping us embroiled in a state of perpetual confrontation as other regions have prospered and progressed and long buried the hatchet of hate. Meanwhile, both India and Pakistan are competing in exclusion and exploitation of their respective population, as their state policy inch towards nihilism.

Continue reading “14 August: A Day for Sombre Reflection”

Mind-Boggling Conundrums in the Middle East

By Zubeida Mustafa

The Obama administration has decided to go slow on its troop withdrawal program in Afghanistan. A substantial American military presence is expected to remain in this strife-stricken country until the end of 2015. President Obama said that this was necessary to make Afghanistan more secure.

However, geopolitics in this region is more complex than the American media make it out to be. Now is the time to set the record straight before a new conflict erupts in the Afghanistan-Pakistan (AfPak) area and ill-conceived explanations are offered to confuse public perceptions. To begin with, Americans should know that many of the wars in Asia have their roots in American geostrategic shenanigans. Continue reading “Mind-Boggling Conundrums in the Middle East”

A Visit to Vietnam

By Rabab Naqvi

geust-contOnce you step out on the streets of Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, it is hard to believe that this is a country that was devastated by war not long ago. My cousin, Rashida, responded to my email from Vietnam, “I am glad you are having a nice stay in Vietnam. My mind still carries the war ravaged scenes of that country of 40 or 50 years ago”. To find remnants of war today one has to go to the War Museum and the Cu Chi tunnel complex.  Hanoi, which was bombed during the war, buzzes with life. Amidst restaurants, hotels, shopping plazas and bazaars pretty women and handsome men scurry around. Vietnamese are blessed with good looks and good figures. Men and women both drive motorcycles on roads and highways. Vietnam has the highest number of two-wheelers per capita. Whole families somehow manage to fit on one motorcycle. It is amazing how they can carry an incredible amount of stuff of varying shapes and sizes on a motorcycle. It appears to be their main mode of Continue reading “A Visit to Vietnam”

A leading light

By Zubeida Mustafa

HENRY Wotton famously said, “An ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.” Leave aside the pun in this quote, not many of the ambassadors we have produced have lied for the country and maintained a discreet silence about their subterfuge. Many have gone further and lied to promote themselves.

Yet in this complex world of diplomacy there was one ambassador who was too principled a man to lie, yet found ways to safeguard his country’s interests. And he chose not to boast about it. That was Saidullah Khan Dehlavi — Said to family and friends — who lost his battle with death last week in Karachi.

Said was the chairman of the board of trustees of the Aga Khan University, an honorary position he assumed in 2001 after his retirement from the Pakistan Foreign Service. In the obituary announcement issued by the AKU, he was referred to as Ambassador Dehlavi and it is an ambassador in the true and best sense of the word that he remained till the end. In a condolence message, the Foreign Office described him as the leading light and a role model. Continue reading “A leading light”