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

 

Enough is enough

gun-logo

By Zubeida Mustafa

THE turnout at the walk organised last Sunday by Citizens against Weapons (CAW) was heartening. Started in 2014 by some concerned citizens, the campaign is catching on. I had joined them at a rally on an intersection of a busy area in Karachi two years ago. There were then barely 50 protesters. On Sunday, there were 400 or so.

One of them, activist Naeem Sadiq, whose motto is ‘say no to guns’, has been working on this goal for a decade. He and his colleagues want to rid the whole country of guns and the message is gaining adherents as a larger number of people — that does not include our rulers — begin to understand the significance of deweaponisation in ending violence. Continue reading “Enough is enough”

‘Asering’ education

2c34b9a43f2b9327428dff1da49bae4e

By Zubeida Mustafa

SINCE 2008 the Annual State of Education Report (Aser) has emerged as an annual exercise which is impatiently awaited. Mainly focusing on children’s learning levels in school in the rural areas, Aser is now recognised as a fairly accurate assessment of the quality of education in Pakistan.

This year Aser records an overall ‘improvement’ under many heads by using the 2014 results as the benchmark. Our policymakers are bound to seize this indicator to go into self-congratulatory euphoria. But the fact is that an improvement of one or two percentage points in some areas is not really progress. The overall picture remains bleak.

A country where one-fifth of its children aged six to 16 remain out of school should hang its head in shame. This is what we have to show five years after our Constitution was amended to make education free and compulsory for the five- to16-year-olds.


The overall picture of our schools remains bleak.

Continue reading “‘Asering’ education”

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”

Rules of the game

By Zubeida Mustafa

It was quite an extraordinary way of celebrating the 67th anniversary of Pakistan’s independence last week. Believing that they could usher in freedom/revolution by bringing their supporters out on the street, Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri succeeded only in creating polarisation and instability in a crisis-ridden country.

The two marches organised by these leaders have evoked strong reactions from political observers. A large segment of pro-democracy opinion views this show of force as an extra-parliamentary move by the opposition that could derail the democratic process and open the door for military intervention. There have also been allegations of collusion between the agitators and elements in the military. Others have defended the people’s right to protest against government excesses. The speculation of regime change has been intertwined with an ongoing discourse on the military-civilian role in politics. Continue reading “Rules of the game”

No Time for War: A Call for Peace Amid Rising Nuclear Tensions between Pakistan and India

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: The WIP

Peace activists in Pakistan and India are attempting desperately to be heard above the din raised by warmongers – elitist by all counts and claiming to be patriotic as well – in the wake of the Mumbai carnage. Jingoism is in the air – be it from so-called nationalists (posing as analysts on television) advocating a nuclear attack for the defense of their country, or the man on the street. Be they from Pakistan or India, they speak of war with great abandon as if it is child’s play. For the electronic media it is a race for sensationalism.

• Peaceful protests are being held throughout Pakistan in what many are calling the most significant mobilization for peace in the country's recent history. Photograph by Naeem Sadiq. •

Continue reading “No Time for War: A Call for Peace Amid Rising Nuclear Tensions between Pakistan and India”

Another formula on Kashmir

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

KASHMIR is again in the news, this time not be cause of an upsurge in violence. Once more there is talk of peace. Another plan has been floated by Pakistan.

In an interview to an Indian television channel last week, President Pervez Musharraf proposed a four-point formula that envisaged the free movement of people within the state with unchanged borders, self-governance or autonomy to the state, a phased withdrawal of troops and a joint supervision mechanism with the participation of India, Pakistan and the Kashmiris.
Continue reading “Another formula on Kashmir”

APHC’s message to Pakistan

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

THE All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) leaders’ visit to Pakistan came as a watershed in the protracted dispute between India and Pakistan on the status of Kashmir. In the bonhomie and euphoria that met the APHC leaders in every city they visited, some basic implications of the political strategy adopted by the Hurriyat leaders and the Pakistan government’s handling of the situation have been missed.

They indicate U-turns by Pakistan and the moderate Kashmiri leadership and a partial turn around by India. What is most important is that this turnabout is the best thing to have happened to South Asia — termed as the most dangerous spot in the world by President Clinton in 2000 — as it can now at long last hope for peace.

Taking a look at Pakistan we find that it had since independence pinned its entire foreign policy on Kashmir. We don’t have to argue whether it was the dispute on Kashmir which vitiated Pakistan’s relations with India or realpolitik compulsions of the two governments that pre-empted a solution to Kashmir. Whichever it may be, the fact is that India and Pakistan remained locked in a vicious dispute that cast its shadow on all other aspects of their bilateral relations.
Continue reading “APHC’s message to Pakistan”

Significance of the bus accord

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

The reaction to the ‘bus accord’ signed by the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan last week in Islamabad has been a mixed one. While those who staunchly support peace between the two countries have welcomed it as a fillip to the composite dialogue which can now be expected to move forward.

Others who have adopted a hard line on Kashmir feel that the decision to link Muzaffarabad and Srinagar by a bus service will be hurtful to their cause. For instance, the BJP, which started the dialogue with Pakistan and is now in the opposition, feels that the bus will allow terrorists to infiltrate the Valley.
Continue reading “Significance of the bus accord”