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

 

Flipping pages

On the same page?

By Rifaat Hamid Ghani

Our country’s history predisposes us to dwell on the tensions of the civil and military relationship and the resultant impact on our politics. Implicit in the spasmodically yet doggedly publicized affaire of Dawn ‘Leaks’ is the underwriting of the thought that the armed forces and the civil government are/may/will be at cross-purposes; or that one or both of these bulwarks of the state may have conflicting currents within them: A more perilously confusing state—domestically and internationally—than the frank impropriety of civil government being subservient to military diktat; or the armed forces blatantly flouting or choosing to act independently of civilian policy’s direction and directives. Continue reading “Flipping pages”

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”

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”

Arms and the man

By Zubeida Mustafa

THE sense of insecurity that hangs heavy in the air in Karachi is almost palpable. Even when life is following its near normal routine — the jostling crowds, the unruly traffic and the noise — the uneasy feeling persists.

For me this normality is not reassuring. Unpleasant memories of traumatic experiences of yore lie hidden in the subconscious. The sight of an armed guard reminds me of the gun-driven violence that stalks the city. It is the gun that has been held twice to my head to rob me when the day was so beautiful. The last time this happened was a few years ago when my peaceful morning walk was interrupted by three armed youths on a motorbike, out to steal my pedometer — worth not more than Rs100. Everyone I meet has a ‘gun story’ to tell. Continue reading “Arms and the man”

Facing challenges in bringing peace to Karachi

By Zubeida Mustafa

I will not be over stating if I say the challenges to a peacemaker in Karachi are phenomenal and nearly insurmountable. I have been asked to speak on how you as teachers can help your students to cope with stress and trauma that has become the norm for Karachi’s youth. If you want to promote peace and the cause of children you must be familiar with some basic facts yourself, even though the information is for you to enhance your understanding of the dynamics of the Karachi situation. Thus you can become the model that your students so badly need to help them cope with the dilemmas violence creates in their minds. It will also equip you with the knowledge you need to answer your students’ questions which will be inevitable if you follow the approach suggested by experts.

There are numerous factors that have reduced the state of law and order of this megalopolis to what it is today. If you look at the number of people who are killed – and that does not include natural deaths or road accidents – you will be stunned by the humungous loss of life. Continue reading “Facing challenges in bringing peace to Karachi”

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”

We are to blame

By Zubeida Mustafa

LAST Tuesday’s carnage by the Taliban in Peshawar has left the nation in grief and shock. Such was the enormity of the crime — more than 130 young lives snuffed out brutally — that the emotions it stirred have yet to subside.

The post-Peshawar reactions are intense. But will this be a watershed event? Many think not. Public attention has already started to wander. The discourse is changing. The lifting of the moratorium on the death penalty that has led to a spree of hangings has invited Continue reading “We are to blame”

Malala’s Pakistan

By Rifaat Hamid Ghani

geust-contMALALA – the world’s youngest Nobel Laureate – and why: because she was shot at and almost killed in her country for speaking up for education for girls. On Dec 10. Pakistanis shed tears watching her receive the prize – so well-deserved; so devastatingly earned.

This girl-child’s was the most effective voice – the one bigots needed to silence them. Pakistan’s child Malala’s glory indicts Pakistan’s adults. Continue reading “Malala’s Pakistan”

Elusive goals

By Zubeida Mustafa

WITH Pakistan more concerned about the existential threat it faces, one is hardly surprised that not much is heard of the MDGs — those elusive eight points called the Millennium Development Goals adopted by the UN in 2000 to be met in 15 years. The deadline is approaching and it is time for scrutiny of the report card.

How has the world fared on this count? The UN MDG report of 2014 observes that these goals have made a “profound difference in people’s lives and the first goal of halving poverty was achieved five years ahead of the 2015 time frame. Ninety per cent of children in developing regions now enjoy primary education, and disparities between boys and girls in enrolment have narrowed”.

It speaks of remarkable gains having also been made in all health indicators. According to the UN, the target of halving the proportion of people who lack access to improved sources of water has also been met. The UN, however, concludes that a lot more still needs to be done to accelerate progress. As it is, the goals did not seek universal coverage in all sectors. Every goal had varying targets. If the global results pleased the UN it is understandable. Some countries performed infinitely better than others. Continue reading “Elusive goals”