Dave Clark –
In military terms, Donald Trump’s long-awaited new Afghanistan strategy looks very much like the old one. But, on the diplomatic front, he took a risk in confronting unruly, nuclear-armed Pakistan.
Washington has long been frustrated by Pakistan’s provision of cross-border safe havens to some of the Taliban factions and armed groups fighting against US troops and their Afghan allies.
Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama risked triggering a breakdown in the long US alliance with Islamabad when he sent commandos into Pakistan in 2011 to kill Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
But, rhetorically at least, Trump’s much anticipated national address on Monday, in which he laid out a new strategy to win the United States’ longest war, marked a dramatic increase in pressure on Pakistan.
“We have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting,” Trump said.
Following up on Trump’s speech on Tuesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned that Pakistan could lose its status as a major US ally and see its US military aid halted.
While Washington may hope this motivates Islamabad to crack down on the groups that launch attacks into Afghanistan, it does not come without risk.
Pakistan holds the Muslim world’s only known nuclear arsenal and its government is a sometimes shaky balancing act between elected civilians and a powerful military that maintains ties with the militants.
Much more than the implied threat to cut military aid to Pakistan, Trump’s request that India play a greater role in stabilising Afghanistan will rattle New Delhi’s most bitter and long-standing foe.
But, US experts agree, Pakistan is unlikely to step up its support for the Haqqani extremist group and the Afghan Taliban if that would mean the collapse of the Kabul government and driving out US troops.
James Jeffrey, a fellow of the Washington Institute and former senior national security adviser to the George W Bush White House, said: “There’s really no way to pressure Pakistan.”
Pakistan has made the decision that keeping Kabul out of India’s orbit is more important than clamping down on cross-border militancy, and cutting aid would only be counterproductive, he argues.
Beyond Afghanistan, the United States has an interest in preventing Pakistan from going to war with India or collapsing and allowing its government or nuclear weapons to fall into the hands of extremists.
And, while the US footprint is smaller now that it was at the height of the occupation, its forces still need access to Pakistani supply lines and airspace.
“There’s really very little we can do,” Jeffrey said. “To cut all aid or, even more dramatically, to start striking the Haqqani network and all that… doesn’t guarantee that they’ll do what we say.”
But Pakistan also has no interest in driving the United States out, and Jeffrey saw Monday’s speech as confirmation that Trump has come around to the idea of a strategy of “long-term containment.”
Sadanand Dhume, an Indian commentator and resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, argued that Washington has many tools at its disposal to turn up the pressure on the Pakistanis — from cutting military aid, to stripping them of allied status or declaring them a state sponsor of terror.
But the biggest stick may be the outreach to India.
“The US has always encouraged Indian involvement in Afghanistan, but it was careful not to step on Pakistani toes,” he said.
“Pakistan certainly doesn’t want Afghanistan to collapse and nor do they want an Afghan government that is strongly and closely tied to New Delhi,” he said. — AFP
Dave Clark –