MOSCOW – Has the Pakistani penny finally dropped for the U.S. government?
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In outlining his new plans for Afghanistan, President Donald Trump committed to expanding the U.S. military presence in the country of Washington’s longest-ever war, saying “we will fight to win.” He was – perhaps intentionally – vague on the details, opting not to disclose the number of additional U.S. troops nor the timeline for a withdrawal. But he was certain about one thing: Pakistan needs to up its game, and fast.
“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,” Trump said, breaking the long silence on an American tradition of tacitly supporting – and allowing – Pakistan to do what it wants with Islamist extremists.
On Tuesday, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said the Pentagon’s strategy for Pakistan was broader than that of previous administrations. He added that it boiled down to how it would be executed, but gave no further details.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson emphasized the point later on Tuesday when he told reporters that Pakistan "must adopt a a different approach" when it comes to terrorism in the region, taking a harsher U.S. line by saying that Washington would be "conditioning" its support for Pakistan dependent on Islamabad delivering results.
Either way, it looks like the Trump administration is coming down hard on its ally Pakistan. For years, Afghan officials and laymen alike have pointed the finger of blame at their eastern neighbor, whom they accuse of unleashing chaos in Afghanistan and harboring militants, including the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, the Haqqani Network and now the Islamic State.
Even the term AfPak, created by Barack Obama’s administration to describe the two countries within the context of the U.S. war against terror, felt offensive to many Afghans, who did not want to be associated with Pakistan even though they share a long and porous border. Pakistan, for its part, describes itself as also being a victim of terrorism, and, on the state level, says it does not support extremism. Pakistan is still home to millions of Afghan refugees who have fled violence and conflict over the past forty years, bearing the brunt of what it has said is another country’s war.
Trump also called on regional heavyweight India, which has been enlarging its presence in Afghanistan for years by building infrastructure and universities in exchange for access to iron ore mines, to “help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development.” This will most likely further irritate Pakistan, which does not want its enemy involved in what it considers its own affairs. The daily Indian Express jokingly wrote that the Trump administration had now created – much in New Delhi’s favor – “AfPakIndia.”
After Trump and Mattis’ words, one could almost feel a collective sigh of relief emanating from Kabul. Though he did not mention either Pakistan or India, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani praised Trump’s plan on Tuesday, hailing the U.S.-Afghan partnership as being “stronger than ever in overcoming the threat of terrorism.”
Unsurprisingly, the Afghan Taliban responded harshly to Trump’s new plan, vowing to turn Afghanistan into “a graveyard for the American empire.” There are currently, 8,400 U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan, most of whom are in an assistance role, and not in combat. At the height of the NATO-led war, in 2011, there were 130,000 foreign troops in the country.
While Trump followed U.S. presidents before him on what to do in Afghanistan – wavering, considering a pull-out, and then deciding to actually deploy more troops – one aspect of his speech at Fort Myer in Virginia was striking: He called out neighboring Pakistan by name.
For many of the foreign diplomats and journalists stationed in Afghanistan throughout the 16-year war, Pakistan’s presence was a wary one. It was an open secret that certain elements within Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence security agency were assisting the Taliban and that the U.S. military possessed full knowledge of this. No one knows the size of the shadowy ISI, which functions in a similar fashion to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. It is much feared at home in Pakistan and has informers all around the region. The ISI, home to powerful hardliners, often plays a more important role than the central government in Islamabad.
Though it was created in 1948, a year after the establishment of Pakistan as an independent state, the ISI did not rise to prominence until 1979, at the start of the Soviet Union’s decade-long war in Afghanistan. Washington, through the ISI, supported the Afghan mujahideen in their fight against the Communist Soviets, helping the holy warriors eventually win the war. The ISI later helped create the Taliban, which they continue to support – although not openly – to limit the influence of Pakistan’s arch-rival, nuclear-armed India. All the while, U.S. financial and military aid has flooded into Pakistan, ostensibly to fight against Islamist extremism.
Trump’s harsh words for Pakistan could signal the beginning of the end for the Washington-Islamabad alliance. When British colonial rule ended exactly seventy years ago, Pakistan and India were formed as independent states. In geopolitical terms, Pakistan sided with the United States; India leaned more towards the Soviet Union.
Cracks in that stalwart alliance, however, started to appear during Obama’s administration. The first major assault on the relationship was in 2011, when U.S. Navy SEALS assassinated Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil in a covert operation without the official knowledge of Pakistani top brass. It was later revealed that Pakistan had been sheltering the Al-Qaida leader for years.
The remnants of that bin Laden operation – organized by the CIA through the creation of a fake polio vaccine drive – mean Pakistan is one of three countries on earth where the disease still flourishes (the others are Afghanistan and Nigeria). Trust between Washington and Islamabad was almost obliterated.
Trump’s foreign policy motives have been shrouded in mystery, feel like knee-jerk reactions, or are a mixture of both. Much of his domestic and foreign policies have been designed to discredit his predecessor, President Obama. But bringing Pakistan to heel, while not original in design, could be an extraordinary feat if achieved.