Washington's relations with Islamabad started going downhill even before Donald Trump stepped into the Oval Office. The US-Pakistan anti-terror collaboration since the Twin Tower attacks on September 11, 2001 has frayed over the years, particularly since 2011 when US troops raided Osama bin Laden's hideout in Abbottabad, without Pakistan's knowledge. In August 2017, Trump laid out his Afghanistan-cum-South Asia policy, which unnerved Pakistan and heartened India. The central issue of Trump's policy was that Pakistan was not doing enough to curb terrorism—Delhi's persistent allegation against Pakistan. America is bleeding, both in terms of blood and money, in the Afghan pothole for the past 16 years and there is no sign that it can extricate itself with honour from this long-running unwinnable war.
Referring to the USD 33 billion American assistance provided since the start of Afghan war in 2001, Trump on January 1, 2018 tweeted that Pakistan had rewarded past US aid with “nothing but lies and deceit.” Trump's broadside vents Washington's anger over Islamabad's anti-terror activities. Later, Washington announced suspension of USD 1.15 billion (USD 255 million for 2016 and USD 900 million for 2017) security assistance to Pakistan.
India is tremendously pleased with Trump's assault on Pakistan as reflected in Indian media reports, though the Indian External Affairs Ministry did not issue any statement. China, however, reacted by saying that Pakistan “has made great efforts and sacrifices for combatting terrorism and made prominent contributions to the cause of international counterterrorism…”
On January 5, reacting to the suspension of aid, Pakistan Foreign Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif said, “We do not have any alliance…. This is not how allies behave.” Asif accused America of turning Pakistan into a “whipping boy” and described the US as a “friend who always betrays.”
It is well established that Pakistan's ISI created Taliban with two clear strategic objectives: to install a friendly compliant government in Kabul, and to thwart any Indian sway over Afghanistan. Delhi has always tried to establish a pro-India government in Pakistan's backyard, i.e. Afghanistan—to reduce threats from Pakistan. Pakistan's antagonism with India is related to the situation in Jammu and Kashmir, where militancy is on the rise, albeit with Pakistan's support.
Several questions beg answers. Is there a real shift in US policy towards Pakistan? Will Washington scrap Pakistan's status of non-NATO ally, and can it really dissuade nuclear-armed Pakistan from giving up its strategic security interest related to Afghanistan?
Washington knows it cannot win the Afghan war without Pakistan's assistance. Primarily because US army logistic lines to Afghanistan pass through Pakistan. Here, India can do very little to help America. The alternative Northern Distribution Network through Tajikistan is not only more expensive but also more cumbersome requiring Russian concurrence.
Afghanistan today has become the battlefield for big powers. All the regional powers—China, Russia, Iran, India, and Pakistan and even America—have raised geo-strategic stakes in war-ravaged Afghanistan. A new alignment of powers is underway over Afghanistan, which is the New Great Game. Donald Trump's hobnobbing with India over Pakistan's head is more to do with containing China rather than to solve the Afghan imbroglio. Trump's threats will only propel Islamabad to be cosier with Beijing and expand relations with Moscow. The suspension of US aid will no doubt affect Pakistan's economy, but Chinese assistance coming through China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects will help offset some of those difficulties.
Russia and Iran have also thrown spanners in this complex crisis by opening communication lines with the Taliban, evidently to have a say in the post-conflict government in which the Taliban is likely to be a partner. China to protect its USD 60 billion investment in Afghanistan has set up trilateral foreign ministers' dialogue involving Pakistan and Afghanistan. The purpose of the dialogue is to improve relations between Kabul and Islamabad and equivocally stymie Indian influence on Kabul. The first trilateral meeting was held in Beijing on December 26, 2017.
Trump's salvo comes at a time when Pakistan is beset with economic turmoil and political dysfunction. Political instability arose when the Supreme Court ejected PM Nawaz Sharif over corruption charges related to Panama Papers. Nawaz apparently lost his job because he asked the top generals to withdraw their support from the militants operating in Pakistan, specifically Haqqani network, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad. Nawaz's fall has given wind to opposition leader Tehreek-e-Insaf Chief Imran Khan's sails, who is touted to become the next PM (with Army's blessings?) when Pakistan goes for general elections in July 2018. The polity in Pakistan is deeply anti-American, and on aid suspension, Imran Khan said it was time for Pakistan to “delink” from the United States.
Washington conveniently ignores America's deeply flawed policy in Afghanistan, where it has set up a totally incompetent government, overseeing a largely anti-American polity. Piling blame on Pakistan will not win the war for America. The problem is that security interests of America and Pakistan are not coterminous—they are diametrically opposed. There is no military solution to the Afghan civil war and Washington would do good to itself by opening dialogue with the Taliban.
Donald Trump has been crying hoarse from the top of a chaotic White House, as depicted in the book Fire and Fury, while Defence Secretary James Mattis has been blowing soft, allaying fears that Pakistan will not strangulate the logistic route through Pakistan, the trump card for Pakistan. Apart from imposing some economic sanctions on Pakistan, Washington actually does not have any potent tool to discipline the nuclear-armed country. Nevertheless, Pakistani generals, who actually run the government, find themselves between a rock (America) and a hard place (India). It is unlikely that Pakistan army will step back from its duplicitous anti-terrorism policy as long as the threat perception from India exists.
Mahmood Hasan is a former ambassador and secretary of the Bangladesh government.