Can Pakistan Turn the US Twist of Its Tail Into an Opportunity?
While US President Donald Trump’s Afghanistan speech in August laying out his Afghanistan policy was rather vague on details, his defence secretary, ‘Mad dog’ Mattis has busied himself lately with fleshing it out.
The major part of it is in threats described by James Mattis to the House Armed Services Committee as ‘enormously powerful number of options’ to Pakistan. Helpfully, he pointed to a couple of these being ‘diplomatic isolation’ and loss of major non-NATO ally status. As incentive, he offered a opening up of the regional economic links, to include those with India.
But his report that Trump is ‘prepared to take whatever steps necessary’ calls for being wary, especially since he ominously indicates the Americans were holding out to give Pakistan ‘one more time’.
President Trump’s Afghanistan policy speech, delivered at a military base near the Arlington National Cemetery, had it that ‘attack we will’ in a ‘fight to win’ over the ‘losers’. If the American foot-work over North Korea has any pointers, Trump’s speech can be taken as much noise, while his ministers go about setting up a diplomatic bypass.
(In the North Korea case, while Trump in his General Assembly address threatened to ‘totally destroy’ the country, his foreign secretary let on that the Americans were talking directly with representatives of Trump’s ‘rocket man’.) Apparently, both Mattis and Tillerson are to visit Pakistan in quick succession soon, perhaps conveying the possibilities ahead, with Tillerson holding out the carrot and Mattis the stick.
The last time the Americans went the whole hog with the stick was at the outset of Operation Enduring Freedom, threatening to bomb Pakistan back into the stone-age. Wisely Musharraf, demonstrated a bit of military decision making panache in his smart about-turn, promptly pulling the carpet from under the Taliban. Even as the Taliban regime collapsed, Musharraf was quick to play the double game, offering the Taliban sanctuary as they escaped – along with Osama bin Laden from Tora Bora - into Pakistan.
This time round, the Pakistanis have been blowing hot and cold. Its national assembly called Trump’s speech ‘hostile and threatening’. It was a useful reminder to the US that its supply lines are through Pakistan. But even as Mattis spoke, the Pakistani foreign minister Khawaja Asif was in Washington DC, staving off any hard options in the Pentagon’s cupboard.
It is easy to reckon that – Trump notwithstanding - the US does not have very many hard options.
While Trump was clear that he would not repeat Obama’s ‘mistake’ in Iraq by leaving Afghanistan, boots on ground in Pakistan are not an option for the US. Its numbers in Afghanistan are set to increase by only about 4000. Its NATO allies are unlikely to cough up any more than they already have, including the American ‘poodle’, the UK, currently seized with Brexit. With these numbers, the US cannot take the war across the Durand Line. They already have the capability for another Operation Neptune Spear, a target-specific raid across the border. The Warrior Monk - Mattis’ other moniker - was then the commander of the US Central Command, overseeing its Afghan war. He therefore should know that this cannot help them much with clearing up the sanctuary Americans believe terrorists enjoy in Pakistan.
While expansion of the program of targeting the Taliban and the Haqqani network with drone attacks has been bandied as an option, the Pakistani Prime Minister at an event at the Council of Foreign Relations during his recent trip to New York for the UN General Assembly session, implied that the use of drones was disrespectful of Pakistani sovereignty. It increases extremist tendencies in Pakistan, adding to numbers of those radicalized. Collateral damage from drones being one of the main grievances impelling people from the frontier areas to head off for the conflict, an increase in drone strikes could only contribute to increasing Taliban popularity and gains in Afghanistan.
There are also other – worse – players, such as ISIS affiliates. It is not unlikely that the ISIS, with nowhere to go from its drubbing - now being wrapped up - in Iraq and Syria, could head for Afghanistan as the next site to ambush the US. The US, in degrading the Taliban, would be whittling a force that can best take on the ISIS. ISIS presence in Afghanistan is not at the expense of the Taliban. Just as the Iraqi military, the Afghan security forces – though also trained in Indian military institutions - are unlikely to do any better against the ISIS, especially if reinforced by fighters from conflicts in the Middle East.
Nevertheless, the ISIS bogey needs exposing. Though Pakistan can be credibly accused of many slippages in the war against terror, it would hardly be coy in case the ISIS comes visiting. The potential threat is being used as alibi to extend the American stay in the region, for strategic reasons other than to do with Afghanistan or, indeed, terrorism. Even a cursory look at the map shows up three American-skeptic countries – Iran, Russia and China – in the neighbourhood.
The US strategy appears to rely for its success on strengthening the Afghan national security forces. However, this has been the principal line of US military effort at least since Obama took office. The idea of the ‘surge’ in Afghanistan, that took US numbers into six figures, was to strengthen the Afghan forces, even as the additional US forces broke the back of the Taliban insurgency. As is well known, the Taliban waited out the surge and today control 40 per cent of Afghan territory.
Thus, it is unclear as to what is different this time round in the US strategy. Is Mattis wanting to play as defence secretary a hand he was unable to play as the military commander in theater then? Perhaps it is posturing on part of the US, hoping to pressure Pakistan to deliver the Taliban to the table. Obama had faltered in this by killing Mullah Mansour, the Taliban chief, in a targeted drone attack. The Americans by now know that the ticket out of their longest war can only be issued by the Taliban.
The Americans hope that by twisting Pakistan’s tail, it would force the Pakistanis to ‘go after’ the Taliban, pushing the Taliban to the table. For that, all Mattis appears to have is a set of sanctions up his sleeve. In his words, "There are a number of lines of effort being put together now in Secretary of Treasury's office, Secretary of State's office, my own office, the intel agencies. We are also working with Secretary General Stoltenberg to ensure that NATO's equities are brought to bear." Since China will bail out Pakistan, a Pakistani revision of their list of ‘bad Taliban’ is hardly likely.
Mattis’ betrayed his weak hand in saying that being considerate with Pakistan had led to his declining to consider Indian boots on the ground in Afghanistan. In his trip to India last month, India’s new defence minister categorically ruled out the possibility. However, that Mattis has included a possible opening up of economic ties in his strategy suggests an Indian input during his visit. He has apparently been led to believe that India would do so, but India’s expectation is that Pakistan will perhaps be goaded into taking on the Taliban on its soil. This is disingenuous on India’s part.
The upshot is that the US does not have the options it claims. Pakistan does not then have to reflexively push back. The best way to prevent radicalism is to deprive it of a context filled with violence and contestation. Pakistan can use the opportunity of the ‘one more time’ on offer by the US for shepherding the Taliban to respectability, duly incentivized for good behavior. It can thereby gain a say in the indefinitely into the future of Afghanistan; set at rest the fears of all its neighbours; and inveigle its way back into US good books by enabling the Americans to depart in keeping with Trump’s original instinct.