They want to ‘win’ the war as Trump has said. ‘Winning’ now could be as little as a ‘graceful exit’ or as much as ‘killing all the Taliban’. We don’t know what the American strategy is and how the end state is envisioned.
We can at best hypothesise as following:
- US wins the peace and exits
- US wins the peace but does not exit
- US does not win the peace by design.
We also don’t know what drives US strategy; their obsession in containing China, their opposition to CPEC or their enthusiasm in promoting India as their proxy or even a combination of all three. We further do not know how regional initiatives affect the US presence in Afghanistan; the Russian support for the Taliban, the Chinese securing mining rights from the Taliban or the Iranian assistance to the Taliban.
With so many unknowns, what do we actually know? First that the Taliban are in control of 40 % of the territory. Second, they now have a roaring global drug trade that is turning over a $70 Billion independent economy. The Taliban are also securing international mining contracts independent of the Afghan Government in areas under their control. The combination of these ‘facts’ precludes any logical reason why the Taliban would need safe havens in Pakistan. We also know that if there was any movement into Afghanistan it has to be by movement across the border, but Afghanistan does not recognise the border and the US does not support its demarcation and fencing. We further know that the Afghan refugees in Pakistan compound the problem and remain a constant source of acrimony where the international community is reluctant to move them back to their country and Afghanistan is averse to accommodate them. It is also very clear that the so-called US surge numerically does not commensurate with a defined objective of winning the war against the Taliban.
Putting the knowns and unknowns together, it seems that the US will persecute the Taliban through punitive stand-off weapon systems, punishing them enough to come to the table but not enough to annihilate them. The negotiation thereon may either lead to abandoning the unity government and striking a deal with the Taliban or then establishing an environment of indefinite end-state but with controlled instability: regulated and contained, justifying a US presence. However, this presupposes that the US is in a position to manage the tempo of the conflict in Afghanistan and that does not appear to be have any currency at present. US presence with the present troop strength necessitates assistance from the Indians and maybe some from NATO and more of such initiatives are likely to be seen in the coming days. As such, Afghanistan will continue to languish in turmoil in the near future and may even become a battle ground for a proxy war between a Russo-Persian alliance against the Indo-US alliance. This would mean a simmering conflict between Taliban supported by the former against Daesh/ISIL supported by the latter.
The containment of China shall become a major objective in such a scenario. To arrive at such an objective, scuttling CPEC will have intermediary gains for the US and would be one objective of the many more envisaged. Here India would be extended a regional status to challenge China but could be delegated a major role in disrupting the CPEC project. India would welcome such a role and would see it as an opportunity to find a resolution to its Kashmir problems on the one hand and cut Pakistan to size on the other. However, India would be wary of any military role in light of Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence and Pakistan’s nuclear capacity would have to be neutralised before embarking on such a task by the Indians. The possibility of capping and dismantling Pakistan’s nuclear capability could be arrived easiest through stripping Pakistan of any economic sovereignty and then through an internal political process in conflict with the security apparatus of the country, leading to a denuclearised Pakistan as an outcome of Pakistan’s own internal fissures and instability. The bogey of extremists over-running a nuclear facility as well as proliferations charges would add to the arguments that Pakistan is a danger to the world. Thus, a political decision to give up the nuclear capability would not only hold a promise of more financial assistance but the world would accolade the ‘reasonableness’ of Pakistan’s democratic process, praising the government’s courage in standing up to the rogue Establishment. However, though there has been some success in entrapping Pakistan into an economic debt-cycle, yet, the internal political conflict never paid the dividends that were envisaged.
Pakistan managed to survive, maintain its cohesion and till now protect its nuclear capability. Having made no gains in attacking Pakistan’s nuclear capacity by facilitating and encouraging an internal conflict between the political elements and the Establishment (See Kerry Lugar Bill), the US now may prefer taking the kinetic route using a military option. Here a two-sided combined initiative by the US and India may seem to be the most feasible way forward. The articulation of such an operation would be first, intelligence gathering followed by military strikes. A successful operation on these lines would facilitate Indian aggression in the Northern Areas, disrupting the CPEC. However, the lure of CPEC would keep US interests alive in the region and what may be denied to China could be undertaken by the US. This would not be possible in an environment where Pakistan remains on the map as it is.
For the US to gain access to Gwadar and for India, its partner in crime, to be facilitated as a regional power, Baluchistan would have to be separated. The Free Baluchistan Movement as we are now witnessing as an international advertisement campaign and the sudden surfacing of the usual human rights groups let loose to defame and malign Pakistan, is a no brainer. Attention is drawn to the continued, unprecedented anti Pakistan campaign by US Senators such as Dana Rohrabacher and Ted Poe. Yet, a free Baluchistan would not be enough to allow connectivity with the Central Asian Republics and thus KP would have to be destabilised enough as well to demand a separate status. This may explain the reluctance of accepting a defined border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, both by the US as well as Afghanistan, though the general complaint against Pakistan focuses on cross border movement.
Such an endeavour was on the maps for a while.
Pakistan was to be the first in the series of the Arab Spring turmoil and implosion. It did not work and Pakistan was able to pull back from the edge of the abyss while the rest of the world around it was smashed to pieces. Since the US is not going to accept failure easily, the US will try and wrest back the initiative through other means. This shall be through an organised attempt at destabilising Pakistan through regulated terrorist activity directed at Baluchistan, KP and GB. And having managed a cause and a reason, the US will use the confusion and fluidity of the environment to attempt dismantling Pakistan’s nuclear capacity in close harmony with India through the military option. The casus-belie for undertaking military operations on Pakistani soil would be accusations of militant safe havens in Pakistan used against US forces in Afghanistan and that Pakistan facilitates terror in India, etc. etc.
US accusations came in the wake of Chuck Hagel’s statement, the ex-secretary Defence, stating that India works at creating trouble in Pakistan; General Petraeus, ex-director of the CIA, who stated publicaly that there was no evidence of Pakistan’s involvement in destabilising Afghanistan; Hillary Clinton, who made a congressional statement that the US had let down Pakistan and now even General Mattis, the sitting secretary defence, warning India to limit its support to the TTP.
With such heavy weights making public announcements in favour of Pakistan or supporting its position, it is clearly indicative that Pakistan is not being blamed because its story has not been heard or understood but because Pakistan has to be cut to size by design. The US does not want to hear any justifications or explanations, it only wants to pursue whatever it needs to in its national interest and woe to anyone in its way. Thus, demands for Pakistan to do more and beaten into submission to do what it is asked of.
Now in retrospect, The US presence in Afghanistan has had varying implications for Pakistan over the years. In the beginning, when Pakistan had the most-allied non-NATO status, a US victory in Afghanistan and a stable Afghanistan was in Pakistan’s interest. Pakistan did whatever it could to assist. However, a US success did not come about, instead a civil war came about with the Taliban winning back 40% of the territory. It ought to be kept in mind that it is always the weaker group that invites foreign occupation and here it is obvious that the weaker group is no other than the Afghan Government itself. In light of the developing situation, a US withdrawal from Afghanistan would have seen the end of the artificial unity government that was artificially propped up. Though that would have ushered in a period of instability, it would have eventually tapered off into a stable Afghanistan, albeit, not in keeping with international political values. Thus, the situation evolved so that now a US withdrawal from Afghanistan was in Pakistan’s interest. Since that too did not happen, the US, in order to retain some semblance of control, resorted to giving India a larger role in Afghanistan, introduced Daesh to challenge the Taliban, criticised and began to resist CPEC to contain China.
Now, under these new present circumstances and the new threats created and presented by the US to Pakistan, as well as the instability the US is promoting within the region, it is very obvious that it is now in Pakistan’s interest to see the US defeated in Afghanistan – totally and unambiguously. As such if the US must pursue its own interest at all costs, how can one deny Pakistan or for that matter any other country, doing the same for its own survival? This will remain a moot point smothered under the inequality of nations, some stronger than others. The changing strategic paradigm in the Afghan Conflict has been mainly driven by an evolving US-Pakistan relationship. As this relationship became not only increasingly irrelevant but at cross purposes, Pakistani orientation became more Chinese specific while the US’s more India specific, creating competing spectrums. How does the US expect that Pakistan should now assist them in Afghanistan in propping up an artificial government that is working against the interests of Pakistan, help them in allowing an enemy State to establish itself in territories that are not strategically contiguous to them, and to permit, the NDS to accommodate the TTP in the Kunar Province of Afghanistan who continually attack Pakistan?
In light of this reality, US expectations of Pakistan are not only highly exaggerated but very unrealistic.
Yet, in Pakistan’s interest, Pakistan’s best option is to try and pull the US back into a meaningful US-Pak relationship that is mutually relevant by integrating the US into the CPEC. It would be a huge diplomatic coup if it could. It would not only destroy a Chinese monopoly but would limit India’s influence from a potentially harmful alliance. Such a possibility is remote and not likely unless the US finds itself in a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, fir there is a credible possibility. The other option, for Pakistan, is to remain very vigilant against a possible spate of terrorist attacks in the near future, containing them and limiting their effect so that the country remains cohesive and the will and moral of the nation remains intact. Pakistan must also work to remain stable and ensure that there are no further serious political upheavals, nor should players within the country be allowed to play games for vested interests. Pakistan must also build on its relationship with Russia, China and Turkey as much as it can. Getting the Gulf States to show some solidarity may be difficult but Pakistan must work on this too. Last of all whereas, it is clear that Pakistan is no position to challenge the US military might, yet it does have the capability to cause serious pain in a response to any aggression against it. This must be clear to all: Afghanistan, India and the US. Avoiding conflict is never the same as deterring it and requires different set of preparations. Pakistan must display a posture where it does not only clearly demonstrate its intent but also its capability and capacity.