The right question about Trump’s Afghan policy
The argument that Pakistan doesn’t harbor militants and has made the greatest sacrifices in the “war on terror” holds almost negative value in Washington, DC. It appears that the current US administration believes that, rather, Pakistan is adamant on pursuing “bad behavior”. And for the hawks in the White House, on Capitol Hill, at the Pentagon and in Langley, such bad behavior necessitates punishment.
Pakistan is a troublesome “ally” as far as they are concerned. But what further troubles many American decision-makers is a conundrum: how to punish, and simultaneously co-opt, such a long-standing “ally” (if they ever were allies).
The relationship between Pakistan and the United States has never been an alliance, which is normally based on mutual interest, a degree of trust and shared respect. Instead, the relationship has been marred by perennial distrust, diverging interests and one-way coercion devoid of respect.
In the context of America’s Afghanistan problem, Pakistan joined the international coalition in the wake of the attacks on September 11, 2001, allegedly as a result of a direct threat by US secretary of state Colin Powell to the Pakistani president at the time, Pervez Musharraf. It is a folly to believe that the interests of these two countries converge in the larger scheme of things. They never have.
In terms of soft power, the United States has never enjoyed high approval ratings among the Pakistani populace. In terms of hard power, the US historically has used two tools to coerce Pakistan: one, much-needed military assistance, and two, economic bailouts from time to time. Most of the time, the United States has offered both to the real center of power in Pakistan – the military.
The US has never preferred to deal with civilian institutions or democratically elected rulers in Pakistan despite Americans’ alleged love of democracy. Too many decision-makers and sensitive constituencies wasted too much time for the Americans’ liking and often fell short of offering full servitude. They wanted results, by hook or by crook – that is how Pakistanis see how Americans have used them. What adds to such injury is not just the insult US President Donald Trump hurled at them on August 21, but the sense that the United States discards Pakistan whenever it wishes.
Much has changed in the world since the Afghan war began 16 years ago. The world is not completely unipolar any more. There are other increasingly assertive players challenging the American policing of the world.
China may not yet be as great a power as the United States, but it has offered Pakistan what the Americans never did: respect. At the same time, the Chinese share Pakistan’s more immediate and pressing regional interests. Pakistan today is a relatively safer and economically viable place than it was 16 years ago, thanks largely to Chinese investment and the sacrifices Pakistan wants the West to recognize. If these trends continue, Washington will increasingly lose any hard-power leverage it once enjoyed in Islamabad.
So what can the United States do to force Pakistan’s hand? Not much. Today, the US needs Pakistan more than Pakistan needs the US. History is a testament to the fact that there is no way for any outside force to continue occupying Afghanistan without Pakistan’s willing cooperation. The United States also needs Pakistan’s expertise to combat al-Qaeda and Islamic State globally. The significant amount of intelligence Pakistan shares with global stakeholders remains of key operational value.
US Army General John Nicholson, commander of US forces in Afghanistan, takes part in a press conference in Kabul on August 24.
It all boils down to one logical question from the American perspective: If Pakistan doesn’t harbor militants, then why is it reluctant to cooperate willingly with the US agenda in Afghanistan? Why is Pakistan being such a naughty boy?
What the Americans fail to understand, or choose to ignore for reasons best known to them, is the fact that it’s not a question of willingness, but a simple matter of interest. Pakistan has the most to gain in the region from a peaceful Afghanistan; however, it is not much good asking the Pakistanis to clean up the Afghan mess so that India can thrive there. It is like asking them to jump out of the frying pan right into the fire.
Pakistan doesn’t enjoy the kind of influence on the Afghan Taliban that it once did. But it still holds a considerable sway over the Pashtuns – about half of Afghanistan’s population – which makes it a key stakeholder. One would want to keep such a stakeholder content, at the least in the hope of holding a country that can’t be held without it.
Furthermore, it would be nice to extend a certain measure of trust to Pakistan when it says it doesn’t have militant sanctuaries. The US, for all intents and purposes, is doing exactly the opposite, and it appears to be deliberate.
Many experts around the globe are asking how likely the new US policy is to succeed. That is the wrong question to ask. America’s new policy for Afghanistan is doomed to fail, as former Pakistani finance minister Shahid Javed Burki has correctly concluded. However, the right question to ask is: What happens next when it fails?
If the precedent prevails, a wider war is the right answer.