Sandeep Singh (Ph.D. Research Scholar) and Dr. Bawa Singh
The sudden decision regarding the partial reduction of American troops from Afghanistan is being seen as “Presidential Departure From the South Asia Policy.” The choice is the outcome of the deal brokered by Pakistan. The irony is that Trump who has always been in the war of words with Pakistan’s leadership, now looking towards Islamabad to help the US to arrange the peace talks with the Taliban. Many pundits in Pakistan’s pavilion have probably believed that the realization of this decision would change the strategic equations in the region and put Pakistan in driver’s seat once again.
South Asia Policy
South Asian region had attracted America’s strategic involvement right after the World War-II when Afghanistan became the battleground for the US-Russia Cold War Great Game to contain the Soviet-led communism. This has also impacted the political format of the newly independent South Asian countries like India and Pakistan about how to deal with regional issues given their precarious economic conditions following the protracted colonial exploitation. Except for some brief critical episodes in the South Asian history (1965, 1971, 1979), the US South Asia policy was not strategically consistent rather had remained highly sporadic one during the phase of entente and détente. The administrative acumens of American Presidents based on their different personal perceptions have also made the South Asia policy more complicated.
The downfall of Soviet communism and resultant liquidity in the US South Asia strategy had led Jihadis forces to take the position in the region. Mohan (2002) argued that South Asia “saw the rise of bastard children born from such US strategy – Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban.” During the decade of the 1990s, the US South Asia policy under President Bill Clinton had undergone the phase of estrangements/engagements which treated the two major regional powers -India and Pakistan differently regarding denuclearizing the region. With the changing geopolitical dynamics, the US policy had multi-pronged objectives like containment of Russia and emerging China, promoting so-called non-proliferation agenda and enhancing the substantial marketization of arms trade.
In the post-9/11, the priorities have been changed once again for the US South Asian policy. The US has started pursuing the so-called strategy to eradicate the terrorism in the Af-Pak region. Currently, dramatic changes have been witnessed in the South Asia policy following the spillover impacts in the Middle East particularly Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. The resultant geopolitical milieus, military expenditure, civilian and military fatalities have compelled the US President Obama to partially withdrew the American troops from Afghanistan (2014). Donald Trump resolved to discontinue the war in the first year of his term; later he had to accept the strategic vulnerabilities following the lengthy administrative deliberations against his original instincts to rebuild America. Recently, he again changed his mind to restore his America First policy which deeply divided the US lawmakers and generals. Thus, the South Asian policy, all the way has become “a legacy of acceptance” factored in the global strategy of every ensuing US administrations.
US-Pakistan Relations: Afghanistan Factor
The foundations of diplomatic relations between the US and Pakistan was established with Washington’s recognition of Islamabad’s independence in 1947 to keep aloof from the impact of the Soviet Union. However, Pakistan’s strategic instincts to become a regional power vis-à-vis India, it became a geostrategic player in military gains an integral part of the CENTO and SEATO organizations. Pakistan granted the US to Peshawar Air Station on lease to watch over Soviet Russia in the decade of 1950s and 1980s. Pakistan also facilitated the first visit of the US President Richard M. Nixon to China through its ping-pong diplomacy. Pakistan had strong military ties with the US during the Cold War period, partly due to India and Afghanistan factors, however, in post-Cold War era, the same had lost its strategic importance given its doubtful position over nuclear arsenal and terrorism. But in the post-9/11 terrorist attack, US-Pakistan mutual strategic engagements quickly revived and moved towards new bilateralism premised on military cooperation.
Afghanistan has become a critical deciding factor in US-Pak relations. In the backdrop of 9/11, Pakistan became a frontline state for the US’s war on terrorism in Afghanistan, even brokering talks between the US and terrorist groups like the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Consequently, Pakistan has received $20 billion military aid for security purposes for which the US has to overlook all the international sanctions. Also, to enhance political dialogue and strategic cooperation on Afghanistan, Pakistan was designated as Major non-NATO ally (MNNA) by the US in 2004. On the eve of NATO Summit (Chicago, May 2012), the allies reiterated that “countries in the region, particularly Pakistan, have important roles in ensuring enduring peace, stability, and security in Afghanistan and in facilitating the completion of the transition process.”
Erickson (2018) wrote in the Washington Post that the role of Pakistan as a frontline state in the US-led Afghan war provoked internal political struggle within Islamabad politics following the drone strikes in Pakistan. It caused several civilian casualties and deaths of local soldiers. On the other hand, the Obama administration questioned Pakistan’s role in fighting against terrorism and expressed that the country didn’t live up to the expectations despite getting a massive amount of US military aid. This frustration resulted in the suspension of $800 million military aid in 2011.
Trump’ Paroxysms and Driver Seat for Pakistan
The Trump administration took a hard line on Pakistan (though ambiguous). As paroxysms prevailed in Trump’s policies conditioned by his manifesto objectives, public proclamations, and tweets. As Trump took over, he resolved to freeze military training programs and national security establishments with Pakistan. The US administration has also given warning to Pakistan that if the latter does not take decisive actions against terrorist groups, Washington will go another way around with its strategy to achieve its objectives by putting Islamabad on to a tightrope walk.
In one of the tweets (January 2018), Trump lashed out that “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!” It was criticized by Pakistani leadership in the official and non-official arena. All these connotations seem to complicate Pakistan’s political stance when it comes to the question — either refuse to liaise or go with the US strategy. Trump used to say about Pakistan’s proxy Taliban, “Innocent people are being killed left and right, ..so we don’t want to talk with the Taliban. There may be time, but it’s going to be a long time.” He keeps on chiding Islamabad for providing haven to terrorists instead of facilitating talks.
After pursuing a hardline approach towards Pakistan, Trump recently changed the course at the end of the year (2018). Trumps wants an honorable exit from Afghanistan. For this, once again he is seeking the help of Pakistan along with China and Russia. Now, he made U-turn and put Pakistan into the driver seat, whereas made disparaging remarks against India’s role in Afghanistan on the eve of New Year. Therefore, Trump has approached a different strategy — inflicting the behavioral changes by fighting a war and cutting aid. There is skepticism about Trump’s strategy that cutting aid, which allowed other countries (Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, and UAE) to step in the region as Pakistan’s newly elected PM Imran has already started approaching to Saudi Arabia and UAE for financial help.
Trump’s volte-face revealed during the recent round of peace talks led by US diplomats Z. Khalilzad- with Taliban representatives in Abu Dhabi (17-19 December). The talk was arranged and brokered by Pakistan at the behest of Trump. The talk reached its conclusion that Trump would reduce troops to the half from Afghanistan which is believed to be positive progress for all parties particularly Pak-Taliban relations. It is perceived as America’s conceding defeat to Taliban in Afghanistan since the latter has not compromised its conventional overtures. Others believe that Trump has done so because of 2020 presidential elections that he has fulfilled his promise to end the Afghanistan war. On the flip side, the Pakistani watchers believe that paradoxical policies of the US are leading the region towards insecure and precarious situation by making Islamabad a scapegoat for its failures. It is a well-known fact that Taliban has been Pakistan’s proxy; the US used the same against the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and now the same is likely to serve the purpose of Russia and China against the US in the Middle East. Whatever fallouts may come, ultimately Pakistan is expected to have a significant say in Afghanistan in the initial stages.
Pakistan is undoubtedly given a central role in Afghanistan peacebuilding process as it has been urged by the US to bring Taliban to the negotiation table. The lack of consistency in Trump’s Af-Pak policy belies his narrative of “absolute win against terrorism” which has paved the way for Pakistan to take driver seat. During the 1980s, the US used Pakistan’s proxy (Taliban) to oust the Soviet Union from Afghanistan, and now it seems that the US wants to use same proxy for her “honorable withdrawal” based on domestic impulsions ahead of the Presidential election. Although circumstances and situations have been changed, Pakistan has a similar role in determining the outcomes.
At the last question is, how Trump abruptly conclude that same Pakistan would be helpful in peacebuilding in Afghanistan, to whom the day one in office, calling as a haven for the terrorism? How Pakistan being in driver seat put the peacebuilding on track by bringing the Taliban on the table while knowing the preconditions of the same for “timeframe for all foreign troops to withdraw from Afghanistan” has not yet been revealed out? Would the US restart the military and economic aid to Pakistan to convince the latter to bring the Taliban on the table? The Taliban would have been either convinced by the tact of postponing Afghanistan elections or in the hope of the US withdrawal or by Pakistan’s assurance. Although, critics are mocking Pak-PM Imran Khan as “Taliban Khan,” he succeeded to get all things under his control using his understanding with Taliban. Imran Khan reaffirmed that only political negotiations and reconciliation could end Afghan war for which all stakeholders are jointly working. Being in the driver seat, Pakistan has an opportunity to establish regional peace and stability, which ultimately impinging on its peace and stability and to come out of its political, security and economy morasses. If ‘Taliban Khan’ metamorphoses himself into Table Khan bringing the Taliban on the table, he would be remembered for long in Afghanistan and Pakistan history.
Moreover, war and paroxysms are not solutions to Afghanistan problems. A peaceful and stable Afghanistan could contribute in the regional peace and stability. The blame game is not the solution. Ultimately, the country has to put its house in order. Otherwise, paroxysms would remain to haunt the peace and stability of the region.