1 September 2017

Trump sees through Pakistan design


Unlike George W Bush & Barack Obama, the new US President has already called Islamabad’s bluff

Pakistan is used to hard talk from Presidents of the United States. After the 9/11 terror attack on the US, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was confronted by an angry Geroge W Bush. The usually laid-back Bush told Musharraf that if he didn’t cooperate with America’s war on terror, the US would “bomb Pakistan into the stone age”.

That was in 2001. Sixteen years later, Pakistan has pretended to cooperate with the US, sucked in over $30 billion in US funds, and used the money to build a terror infrastructure aimed squarely at India.

The US-led NATO alliance has lost over 4,000 soldiers fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan over the past 16 years. Nurtured by the Pakistani army, the Taliban has meanwhile grown in power and confidence. The US has witnessed Pakistan’s double dealing during this period but done little concrete about it.

To Pakistan’s delight, President Bush switched his attention from Afghanistan to Iraq in 2003. The Taliban, pressure relieved, regrouped. President Barack Obama pleased the Pakistanis even more during his 2009-17 tenure by drawing down 1,00,000 US troops in Afghanistan to 8,900 soldiers, largely in an advisory and training capacity. He further pleased the Taliban and its Pakistani army mentors by announcing the withdrawals several years in advance.

The ruthless terrorists who comprise the Taliban and their Pakistani army handlers couldn’t believe their luck. They hunkered down in 2012, waiting for US troops to leave which they, as promised, did in 2014. The Taliban soon re-emerged as a political force, asking for and getting a seat on the “peacemakers’ table” — one of the first cases of terrorists discussing an increase in their own power with those tasked to eliminate them.

Having run rings around two US presidents, Bush and Obama, for 16 years the Pakistani army was confident it could do the same with President Donald Trump. The early signs were propitious. In a phone conversation with then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Trump called Pakistanis a “fantastic people” and pledged to work together with Islamabad to fight terrorism in Af-Pak. He seemed to have swallowed the well-worn Pakistani lie that it was the victim of terrorism, rather than its perpetrator.

Was Trump going to be as gullible as Bush and Obama? The answer was delivered in his speech last week outlining a new Afghanistan policy. Trump identified Pakistan as the principal source of terrorism. In the strongest language used by a US president against Pakistan, Trump said coldly: “We’re not into nation-building in Afghanistan. We’re into killing terrorists wherever they are.” That, Trump said, included Pakistan.

But will anything change on the ground? The Pakistani army, whose livelihood depends on using terrorism as an instrument of state policy against India, is confident nothing will. It has already distorted Trump’s call to India to “help more” in Afghanistan as a request for military assistance, knowing full well that Trump had referred only to “economic assistance”. Pakistan is paranoid about India’s growing influence in Afghanistan where India has built hospitals, schools, roads and government infrastructure. Over 12,000 Afghans study in India. Nearly 4,000 Indians work in Afghanistan.

Trump and his tough-as-nails Defence Secretary General James (“Mad Dog”) Mattis plan to send 4,000 additional US troops to Afghanistan. NATO is set to send several thousand coalition troops as well, taking the US-led force to 20,000 in short order. There’s more bad news for the Pakistani army and its protégé, the Taliban. Trump and Mattis haven’t ruled out using American air power on terror safe havens in Pakistan itself. Though occasional drone attacks on terror targets along the Afghan-Pakistan border have been carried out in the past, US missile and air attacks on terror sanctuaries on Pakistani soil have been rare. In Syria and Iraq, US air power has turned the tide against the Islamic State (ISIS). Trump and Mattis are confident that the use of US air power on Pakistan’s terror safe havens will make a big difference in the war to defeat the Taliban.

For India, the key question is: What about the Laskhar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) which are sponsored by the Pakistani army-ISI to attack India in Kashmir and elsewhere? Trump was notably silent on these Punjab-based terror groups. But if he seeks a greater Indian role to develop Afghanistan’s economy, he knows America’s new war on terror can’t ignore the LeT and JeM.

To make a difference, the US will have to attack the source of terrorism: Pakistan. President Trump and General Mattis know this. If the new Trump-Mattis doctrine in Af-Pak of attacking terrorists “wherever they are” is to succeed, US air power holds the key.

The writer is the author of The New Clash of Civilizations: How The Contest Between America, China, India and Islam Will Shape Our Century

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