Recent press reports indicate the US is preparing a new strategy for dealing with Afghanistan which would shortly be presented to President Donald Trump.
Inputs indicate a changed perception towards Pakistan, including reduction of financial aid, more drone strikes and removing the nation from the status of non-NATO ally, an action already initiated in the Senate, in addition to a surge in troops between 3,000 and 5,000 in Afghanistan.
Earlier, reports also indicated that under pressure from the Senate, the US government has ordered an inter-agency review of America’s support to Pakistan, which could curtail US funding.
To further add insult to injury, the ambassadors of Pakistan and Afghanistan clashed at an event organised by a Washington-based thinktank, Indus. The Afghan ambassador stated that “only fish in the Indian Ocean do not complain of Pakistani interfering in their internal matters, all else do”.
The Pakistani ambassador defended his nation by claiming that it cannot be blamed for all ills in Afghanistan, as terrorist attacks originate within the nation itself. To rub salt to the wounds, the US national security adviser, General McMaster, told Pakistani officials that the US could attack targets within Pakistan if American hostages held by the Haqqani network were killed.
This policy change comes when the US appears to be moving into a security isolation, with its NATO allies hesitant to contribute to a planned surge of troops in Afghanistan, which is on the cards.
Therefore, this reduces options for the US in handling the growing crises in Afghanistan, where Afghan casualties mount by the day, without seeking cooperation from nations, which though not part of NATO and unlikely to provide troops, could contribute in other ways. The US is compelled to shift tack because Afghanistan is unlikely to stabilise in the foreseeable future.
A few recent statements by the Pentagon seem to suggest their desperation in involving India, which could contribute in multiple ways. The first statement that “India is Afghanistan’s most reliable partner”, was mentioned in the latest Afghan report of the Pentagon, issued last week.
The second statement made in the same report reads “Afghan-oriented militant groups, including the Taliban and Haqqani network, retain freedom of action inside Pakistani territory and benefit from support from elements of the Pakistani government”.
Criticising Pakistan’s selective anti-terror operations, the report continues to state: “Although Pakistani military operations have disrupted some militant sanctuaries, certain extremist groups, such as the Taliban and Haqqani network, were able to relocate and continue to operate in and from Pakistan”. They were echoing India’s words of good and bad terror groups being employed as part of state policy by Pakistan.
These statements, as also releasing the sale of 22 Guardian drones to India, prior to the visit of PM Narendra Modi to the US, is an indicator of the US seeking to woo India, specifically for its anti-terror campaign.
Modi may not be expecting much from the US, other than ensuring that earlier relations continue and possibly develop, however, recent statements from the US as also a strong reference to terror emanating from Pakistan as part of the joint statement, indicate that the US desires that India become a partner in its anti-terror campaign.
While being aware that India is unwilling to contribute boots on the ground, there are many more areas for India to be involved. These areas include provision of spares for Russian origin equipment, enhancing supply of military equipment, financial assistance in developmental projects and training support for the Afghan military.
Training of the Afghan army has immense value in the long term and should be enhanced to the levels possible. The major benefit is, those who train in India, carry Indian ethos, culture and outlook, when they return. They would always be Indian supporters, hence unlikely to be swayed by Pakistan-supported militant sentiment. They would value freedom more than imposition of Sharia law.
For Pakistan, the pressures are only likely to increase. Removing Pakistan from non-NATO ally status would be akin to a slap on its face. Increasing drone strikes within Pakistan has more relevance, as it would severely impact the hallowed power of the army and the standing and stature of the government, especially as elections are around the corner.
The latest drone strike resulted in the death of a commander of the Haqqani network and led to the Pakistan opposition questioning its army chief on ensuring sovereignty of the nation. Regular drone strikes would anger militant groups, with breakaway factions within them changing tack to target Pakistan, adding to woes.
For the US, the ground reality is that talks with the Taliban is the only possible solution, but these must be conducted from a position of strength. Therefore, the Taliban and Haqqani leadership, operating from within Pakistan, must either be eliminated or forced into the mountains of Afghanistan, for subsequent engagement by US missile and air power.
It is only by degrading the leadership can they expect to negotiate. Hence, the US appears to be slowly losing patience with Pakistan, therefore it now seeks a new strategy aiming to deal with it.
The US still has to bank on the Karachi port and the land route emanating from there for move of its stores and supplies to Afghanistan. With a surge in troop strength, this dependency would only increase. Thus, any hard and determined action against Pakistan would be weighed within this limitation.
Pakistan knows it is being pushed into a corner. It is being compelled to walk a tightrope. It cannot let loose its “dogs of war” across either India or Afghanistan as one wrong strike could blow back on its face.
It would continue to bank on Chinese support, as they are its only allies left. The Pakistan army’s options on supporting terror groups are slowly narrowing and may only make things more difficult for them in the months ahead.