Pakistan’s strategic mess has a bad influence upon the situation in the region
US President Trump laid out his plans for Afghanistan last Monday, and they don’t look good for Pakistan. The President stuck to his strong-man persona and threatened to cease all monetary assistance to Pakistan if it continues to provide shelter to ‘agents of chaos, violence and terror.’ Going a step further, he praised India’s role in the region and invited it to join his new Afghan strategy. This poses a dire quagmire for Pakistan’s security establishment which considers building influence in Afghanistan as its primary objective to counter India’s clout in the region.
Some observers in Pakistan see Trump’s speech as yet another hollow threat by an American President that will never materialise. However, things seem to be different this time for several reasons. President Trump uncharacteristically read this speech form a teleprompter to give a coherent message to Pakistan, which suggests that this policy comes from a stable source like the State Department rather than the White House. These views were later echoed by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and General John Nicholson, the top US commander in Afghanistan, which gives the impression that this strategy is supported by the Department of State as well as the Pentagon.
Anyone following the US media during the few days leading up to Trump’s Monday speech could not miss the deliberate narrative construction to support his new strategy. The National Public Radio (NPR), for example, ran multiple stories with pro and anti-Trump commentaries encouraging the President to do something concrete about Pakistan’s duplicitous role in Afghanistan. Such stories are still dominating the news cycle, even a week after his speech.
Trump’s speech also made it clear that the Americans have no intention to leave Afghanistan anytime soon. Whether it is because of the estimated $3 trillion mineral deposits or the lure to counter China and Russia, Afghanistan is likely to remain under direct American control for decades to come. A long-term stay in the region would require peace and stability, which is not possible if the Afghan insurgents have safe havens in neighbouring Pakistan.
Holding Pakistan responsible for all problems in Afghanistan would not be fair since the country has suffered over 60,000 casualties in the war on terror over the last two decades. However, the Americans are finding it increasingly difficult to sympathise with Pakistan when they suspect the Haqqani Network to be headquartered in the town of Miramshah in FATA. An important commander of the Network was allegedly killed by a US drone in Hangu, Khyber Pukhtunkhwah (KP) in June this year. A few days back, the Defence of Pakistan Council (DPC) chief Maulana Sami-ul-Haq lambasted Trump’s speech by asserting that Pakistan army will never act against the Haqqanis, further strengthening suspicions of Haqqani Network’s connections with Pakistan since the DPC is widely considered to be aligned with the Pakistani deep-state. The American frustration is not only limited to the Haqqanis.
The Pakistani establishment is said to have strong ties with Shafique Mengal, an Islamic militia commander in Balochistan with connections with ISIS and Al-Qaeda. Syed Salahudeen, the head of Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, was recently declared as Specially Designated Global Terrorist by the US, but continues to reside and operate from Muzaffarabad, Azad Kashmir. Jamaat-ud-Dawa’s (JuD) chief Hafiz Saeed is another designated a terrorist by the United Nations with a $10 million bounty owing to his role in the 2008 Mumbai attacks. While he remains in and out of house arrests, his organisation launched a political party called Milli Muslim League earlier this month. Fazal-ur-Rahman Kahlil of Harkat-ul-Mujahideen is also set to launch his political party soon. Maulana Aurangzeb Farooqi and Ahmad Ludhianvi of the proscribed terrorist organisation Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) also continue to operate with impunity and continue to hold public rallies even in Islamabad. International observers are forced to question the deep-state’s seriousness in dealing with these organisations, especially when it showed surprising effectiveness in banning the Altaf faction of Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) from all activities in Pakistan. This sends the message that the establishment can act where it wants to.
The Pakistani establishment must have its reasons for appearing soft on extremist organisations. It might fear a violent backlash from these groups, forcing the deep-state to take a long-term approach by slowly integrating them into the mainstream society. The establishment might also be concerned about dealing with Afghanistan after the US leaves the region, trying to ensure a friendly government in Kabul which prevents its arch-nemesis India from establishing a strong foot-hold in the country. This would be a strategic nightmare for the Pakistan’s security apparatus and the US is playing on this fear to force Pakistan to either fall in line with its policies or expect a larger Indian role in Afghanistan. We should admit that our policy of harbouring religious extremists has now backfired. This policy has in fact become the cause of the crisis that it was supposed to prevent.
While Trump’s threats appear to be concrete, it is highly unlikely that our security establishment will heed to these warning anytime soon due to its own strategic priorities. More political, economic, and military pressure on a nuclear armed Pakistan will destabilise the region for everyone, but the outcome would be worst felt by the people of Pakistan who are finally seeing some economic progress. It is in our own long-term socio-economic interest that we seek solutions to prevent the conflict from escalating. It is time to alter our security ethos like a responsible modern nation and regain our respect within the international community.
Published in Daily Times, August 29th 2017.