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M K Bhadrakumar |

The tone and content of the statement issued in Islamabad on Thursday after the meeting of the National Security Committee, here, regarding President Donald Trump’s new South Asia strategy suggest that the apparent policy shift in Washington did not take the Pakistani leadership by surprise. This is a well-considered statement after weighing all options open to Pakistan at a defining moment such as the present one in the country’s foreign and security policy. The NSC meeting, which was chaired by Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, was attended by the top brass.

Given the imperatives of the CPEC, Beijing can be trusted to ensure that Pakistan’s security and stability do not come under US threat. Equally, Pakistan can rest assured of China’s full backing at the political and diplomatic level

Prima facie, the statement may appear to be a stern reaction articulating Pakistan’s outright rejection of the allegations made by Trump. That is only to be expected. No US president has ever talked to Pakistan so rudely and in such threatening terms and the domestic opinion within Pakistan is incensed over it.

However, on careful reading and re-reading, it is a rather balanced statement, after all. It eschews any combative tone and is more a dignified and appealing defense of Pakistan’s stance. Indeed, it firmly rebuts Trump’s allegations. Unsurprisingly, it also underscores Pakistan’ resolve to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity, making it clear that “the Afghan war cannot be fought in Pakistan.”

Read more: The winners and losers in Trump’s Afghan strategy – II

At the same time, the overall message that the NSC statement conveys to the Trump administration is that Pakistan is still willing to work with the US provided the latter recognizes Pakistan’s legitimate interests and concerns in regional security.

The overall Russian and Iranian approach to the US is to negotiate optimal terms of engagement that serve their national interests. At any rate, it is preposterous that the inherent contradictions in Pakistan’s relations with Russia and Iran can be wished away

Of course, there is one caveat – Pakistan simply cannot and will not accept Trump’s decision to co-opt India as a “net security provider in the South Asian region”. The NSC statement highlights India’s troubled relations with its South Asian neighbors, India’s neighborhood policies, India’s alleged use of terrorist elements and, of course, the situation in Jammu & Kashmir. Suffice to say, from the Pakistani viewpoint the Trump administration has crossed the “red line” by inviting India to play a pivotal role in the stabilization of Afghanistan and in strengthening the South Asian region’s security.

It stands to reason that the NSC meeting took into account the remarks made by the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday where he significantly moderated Trump’s threatening tone and virtually left the door open for a new phase of constructive engagement between the US and Pakistan.  Indeed, Pakistan has a great deal to mull over, as the following excerpts of Tillerson’s remarks illustrate:

Read more: The winners and losers in Trump’s Afghan Strategy – 1

  • I think the President [Trump] was clear this entire effort is intended to put pressure on the Taliban to have the Taliban understand: You will not win a battlefield victory. We may not win one, but neither will you. And so at some point, we have to come to the negotiating table and find a way to bring this to an end… Pakistan, in particular, can play an important role here, certainly in delivering the Taliban to the negotiating table.
  • Pakistan must adopt a different approach, and we are ready to work with them to help them protect themselves against these terrorist organizations, but certainly to begin to end their attacks that are disrupting our efforts at peace. We are going to be conditioning our support for Pakistan and our relationship with them on them delivering results in this area. We want to work with Pakistan in a positive way, but they must change their approach.
  • We are going to be engaging with them [Pakistan] in a very serious and thorough way as to our expectations and the conditions that go with that… The U.S. alone is not going to change this dynamic with Pakistan… I think there are areas where perhaps even India can take some steps of rapprochement on issues with Pakistan to improve the stability within Pakistan and remove some of the reasons why they deal with these unstable elements inside their own country. As I said, other regional players have a strong interest in Pakistan. China has a strong interest in Pakistan. Having a stable, secure future Pakistan is in a lot of our interests.
  • They are a nuclear power. We have concerns about their weapons, the security of their weapons. There are many areas in which we believe we should be having very productive dialogue that serves both of our interests and regional interest as well. So this is – again, this is not a situation where the U.S. is saying, “Look, it’s just us and you.” What our approach is to bring – as I said, these regional approaches is to bring all the other interest into this effort…I think too often we try to distill these challenges down to where it’s just the U.S. and some other country and only between the two of us can we solve it. We have to enlarge the circle of interest and bring others to – into the effort as well, and that’s what we’ll be doing with Pakistan as well.

Tillerson steered clear of holding out any threats of retribution unless and until Pakistan did this or that “immediately”. On the contrary, he freely acknowledged that “too much pressure, too tough pressure” may destabilize Pakistan and, therefore, “at the end of the day, Pakistan has to decide what is in Pakistan’s long-term interest from a security standpoint for themselves and for their people.”

Read more: Afghanistan is ripe for proxy war

Any shift can only happen if the forthcoming US-Pakistani dialogue runs aground. Make no mistake, both sides will take care that such a breakdown, which doesn’t suit either side, is avoided as far as possible

Interestingly, Tillerson disclosed that the Trump administration is very close to naming “a very experienced individual” as the next US special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan (who also coordinates the Afghan reconciliation process.)

All things taken into consideration, the NSC statement is a clear indication that Pakistan will ask for a dialogue with the Trump administration. In fact, a foreign minister level meeting is on the cards. Pakistan is immensely experienced in managing the relationship with the US and it will be a completely unwarranted conclusion for Indian analysts to make that the two countries are parting ways.

Paradoxically, Trump’s decision to allow a military surge in Afghanistan can only increase the US’ dependence on Pakistani goodwill and cooperation. Interestingly, the NSC statement concludes by saying that “Pakistan will continue to extend all possible cooperation to the international community for achieving the common objectives of peace and stability in Afghanistan and in the broader region.”

Suffice to say, from the Pakistani viewpoint the Trump administration has crossed the “red line” by inviting India to play a pivotal role in the stabilization of Afghanistan and in strengthening the South Asian region’s security

Equally, if the NSC statement is any indication, a drastic change in the strategic direction of Pakistani policies is not to be expected at this point. Pakistan will in the first instance make an attempt to re-calibrate the relations with the US, which has not been in good shape for some time anyway. Any shift can only happen if the forthcoming US-Pakistani dialogue runs aground. Make no mistake, both sides will take care that such a breakdown, which doesn’t suit either side, is avoided as far as possible.

Read more: Trump ‘New’ Afghanistan strategy is neither new, nor a strategy

Meanwhile, Pakistan will keep nurturing its developing relationship with Russia and keep the relations with Iran on an even keel as well. These two countries are important stakeholders in Afghanistan and they also happen to be at loggerheads with the US. On the other hand, Pakistan also cannot overlook that Russia-US and Iran-US relations are highly dynamic and are far from ‘Afghan-centric’.

The Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, in fact, issued a rather long-winded commentary on Thursday regarding Trump’s Afghan strategy, doubting the efficacy of its emphasis on the military surge while at the same time also reaffirming, curiously enough, Moscow’s “openness to cooperate” with the US in the capacity-building of the Afghan armed forces as well as “in advancing the national reconciliation process.”

There are some similarities between the Russian and Chinese positions vis-à-vis Trump’s Afghan strategy and it is entirely conceivable that the two countries have been coordinating their stance. The point is, Moscow always wanted to work with the US and NATO in Afghanistan. Its first preference remains the same even today.

The NSC meeting, which was chaired by Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, was attended by the top brass

As regards Iran, it also is carefully navigating its relations with the US, fully conscious that the top priority is to safeguard the nuclear deal of July 2015 and not to get into a confrontation with the US. Tehran takes a nuanced view of Trump. In regional politics, Iran’s primary focus happens to be on the stabilization of relations with the GCC states – Saudi Arabia, in particular – and on consolidating its hard-won victory on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria. With regard to Afghanistan, security considerations have always been Iran’s number one priority – border security, drug trafficking, security of the Hazara Shia community. Evidently, a US surge in Afghanistan to kill terrorists per se does not harm Iran’s interests.

Although Pakistani analysts are addicted to the exhilarating great game, the Pakistani elites cannot but be aware that neither Russia nor Iran is really looking at Afghanistan as a turf to confront the US. The overall Russian and Iranian approach to the US is to negotiate optimal terms of engagement that serve their national interests. At any rate, it is preposterous that the inherent contradictions in Pakistan’s relations with Russia and Iran can be wished away.

Read more: Pakistan slams the US; calls for immediate action against sanctuaries in…

Pakistan’s army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa has been quoted as telling the American ambassador David Hale at a meeting in Rawalpindi on Thursday that “we (Pakistan) are not looking for any material or financial assistance from the USA.” But the remark can be taken for its optics in the domestic opinion. In reality, though, much as the US’ capacity to leverage Pakistani policies have significantly diminished, Pakistan’s dependence on the US goodwill also cannot be overlooked in the areas of trade, access to western financial institutions and banking system — and even for the maintenance of the western equipment on which Pakistani armed forces continue to depend.

Prima facie, the statement may appear to be a stern reaction articulating Pakistan’s outright rejection of the allegations made by Trump

The bottom line, therefore, is that Trump’s Afghan strategy can only further strengthen Pakistan’s strategic partnership with China and only increase Pakistan’s need for Chinese political and diplomatic support. Given the imperatives of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Beijing can be trusted to ensure that Pakistan’s security and stability do not come under US threat. Equally, Pakistan can rest assured of China’s full backing at the political and diplomatic level to frustrate any US attempt to “isolate” Pakistan.

At the same time, it is also one hundred percent certain that the US will seek China’s help – if it has not done that already – to influence Pakistani policies in the interests of regional security and stability. On its part, China has always been keen that the US joins its Belt and Road Initiative. Afghanistan could turn out to be the revolving door that makes this dream come true.

Read more: The illegality of Trump’s Afghanistan war

Trump is well aware of Afghanistan’s vast mineral reserves and the challenges in transporting them to the world market. The New York Times reported last month that: a) Trump personally took up this topic with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani; b) Trump’s aides have discussed with American companies the potential for extracting rare-earth minerals from Afghanistan; and, c) that White House was deputing an envoy to Kabul to discuss the subject with Afghan mining officials. To be sure, the CPEC is bound to attract the attention of American/western companies at some point as the most viable and economical transportation route. Indeed, a very engrossing period lies ahead for the US-Pakistan-China triangle.

M. K. Bhadrakumar has served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings as India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes extensively in Indian newspapers, Asia Times and the “Indian Punchline”. This piece was first published in Indian Punchline. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.

M. K. Bhadrakumar has served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings as India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes extensively in Indian newspapers, Asia Times and the “Indian Punchline”.

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