Article 370 revoked: How Pakistan may react, and the USA may not

The US, focused on Pakistan helping to extricate it from the Afghan morass, may turn a blind eye to terrorism that is not directed against it.

 |  6-minute read |   07-08-2019
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After making substantial improvements to the security grid and enforcing a lockdown in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), the government of India abrogated Article 370 on August 5 — thereby ending J&K’s special status.

Pakistan condemned this move as “irresponsible”, stating, “No unilateral step by the government of India can change this disputed status, as enshrined in the United Nations Security Council resolutions”; adding it “will exercise all possible options to counter the illegal steps” as it was “party to this international dispute”. It also called upon the United Nations, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and other countries “not to remain silent on this issue”.

khan690_080619051630.jpgWill he milk the moment? Pakistan could use a vulnerable USA for gaining an advantage in Kashmir. (Photo: Reuters)

While Pakistan’s official reaction was on expected lines, what remains to be seen is Pakistan’s likely covert reaction — even though circumstances exist for a 1989-1990 redux.   

Pakistan-USA relations and Afghanistan  

Over the past 70 years, US-Pakistan relations have swung between two extremes — the US wooed Pakistan when it needed the latter to pursue its strategic objectives in the region, but put it under sanctions at other times for its nuclear energy-related misdemeanours.

However, each time relations deteriorated, events in Afghanistan came to Pakistan’s rescue.

Pakistan’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons capability in the late 1970s led to the US suspending maximum aid to it under the Symington Amendment. Months later in December 1979, the erstwhile USSR invaded Afghanistan. The US immediately waived the sanctions on Pakistan, gave a $3.2 billion economic and military aid package to Pakistan — and along with Saudi Arabia, bankrolled ‘jihad’ in Afghanistan. Pakistan exploited the situation to covertly pilfer some of the aid and equipment, blackmail Washington into providing more economic and military assistance, and further its own interests in Afghanistan by strengthening select Islamist groups.

The Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in February 1989.

In October 1990, the US re-imposed sanctions on Pakistan.

However, Pakistan had effectively utilised the window to progress its nuclear weapons programme. The 1998 nuclear tests by Pakistan led to the reimposition of sanctions associated with the Symington, Pressler and Glenn Amendments.

But, as happened in 1979, a fresh crisis came to Pakistan’s rescue — the 9/11 attacks in September 2001. 

russian-690_080619051921.jpgDown memory lane: Immediately after the USSR withdrew from Afghanistan, the US imposed sanctions on Pakistan. (Photo: Reuters/For representational puposes only)

Post-9/11, the US needed wide-ranging Pakistani assistance for conducting operations in landlocked Afghanistan. Pakistan quickly aligned with the US — it provided port facilities, overland access, airfields, transportation, etc. In turn, the US promptly lifted all sanctions; gave an Emergency Cash Transfer of $600 million; and designated Pakistan as a ‘Major Non-NATO Ally’. It also began economic, security and military aid to Pakistan.

Between 2002 and 2018, Pakistan received $34.2 billion ($11.3 billion as economic aid; $8.3 billion as security aid, including $4 billion as Foreign Military Financing (FMF); and about $14.6 billion as Coalition Support Fund. In addition came advanced military equipment.

Pakistan had also been instrumental in the thawing of relations between China and the US in 1972. Thus, notwithstanding its transgressions, the key role of Pakistan in the rapprochement with China, the major US victory against the Soviets during the Cold War, as well as its assistance to the US after the only devastating attack (9/11) on Continental US, all these linger in the US government’s institutional memory. 

Beginning of militancy in J&K

It is generally accepted that following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, Pakistan used some of the mujahideen to foment trouble in J&K.

The methods used by the US-Saudi-Pakistan combine to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan provided three main lessons to the Pakistan Army:

1) Brainwashed religious zealots provide an excellent low-cost, asymmetric and disruptive option against conventional forces of an adversary

2) This forces an adversary to spend disproportionate amounts of resources on countering the asymmetric threat, with little or no threat/damage to the sponsoring state

kashmir-690_080619052046.jpgThe brainwashed zealot strategy: Guess where Pakistan learnt this tactic from? (Photo: Reuters)

3) The two main nuclear armed adversaries (USSR and NATO) had confronted each other only through their proxies in distant parts of the world — but they never fought each other directly

It is thus no coincidence that the start of Pakistan’s proxy war against India coincided with Pakistan attaining nuclear capability, and the Soviets withdrawing from Afghanistan, the US losing interest in Afghanistan, and some Mujahideen being free to go where Pakistan diverted them.

A near-similar situation is being obtained now. 

The present

China, Pakistan’s all-weather friend, preoccupied with its own separatist/autonomy movements in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong, is unlikely to strongly support Pakistan on J&K. The US, however, is another story. After taking office in 2017, US President Donald Trump authorised additional troops for Afghanistan to break the military stalemate and severely castigated Pakistan on occasions.

But with the Taliban resurging, security deteriorating and the Afghan government appearing increasingly irrelevant, Trump has reversed his Afghanistan — and Pakistan — policies.

He now wants to end the longest war in the US’ history and draw down all US forces in Afghanistan prior to the November 2020 Presidential election.

To this end, the US is seeking Pakistan’s assistance to progress negotiations with the Taliban, ideally by end-2019 or early-2020. This US-Pakistan deal had emerged during PM Imran Khan’s July visit to the US, with President Trump declaring that “Pakistan is going to help us out to extricate ourselves” (after which the US cleared a $125 million support package for Pakistan’s F-16 fleet).

In sum: the US-Pakistan dynamics has swung full circle — and as in 1979 and 2001, a fresh crisis in Afghanistan is allowing Pakistan to reset its relations with the US.

More importantly, the same conditions that had allowed Pakistan to start its proxy war in 1989 are back again — a resurgent Taliban; impending US withdrawal and Pakistani superintendence of Afghanistan.

There is however one difference. The Indian security forces and the intelligence set-up are far better prepared to deal with cross-border infiltration; besides, India has exhibited the will to take the fight to the terrorist training camps.

Nevertheless, the recent hotting-up of the LoC is a reminder that with the US wanting out of Afghanistan, Pakistan feels free to renew its old games in the region — and that Washington, focused on Pakistan helping to extricate it from the Afghan morass, may choose to turn a blind eye to terrorism that is not directed against it.

Also read: USA, Pakistan and the F-16: What lies behind US's $125 mn military sales to Pakistan to monitor F-16s


Brigadier Kuldip Singh (retired) Brigadier Kuldip Singh (retired) @ksingh_pds

Brigadier Kuldip Singh (retd) is a former principal director (defence) in the National Security Council Secretariat.

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