US President Donald Trump announces his strategy for Afghanistan during an address from Fort Myer, Virginia, on August 21, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Joshua Roberts

Taking his country back to Square 1, President Donald Trump’s Afghanistan policy offered nothing new except forsaking old frontline ally Pakistan and coercing new strategic ally India to deliver.

Having spent US$1 trillion on the 16-year battle without results, the United States could not face defeat and blamed Pakistan instead. It is not forgotten that Trump was opposed to the Afghan war during his election campaign, calling  it “nonsense” and a waste of money, tweeting the refrain “Let’s get out of Afghanistan”.

As the scapegoat, Pakistan was accused of sheltering “agents of chaos” and “the very terrorists” the US military had been fighting in Afghanistan, while greater Indian involvement was sought vis-a-vis containing the Taliban. However, criticizing Pakistan may have backfired on the US. Islamabad countered that it was not responsible for the US defeat and hardened its stance while recounting the human and financial losses it had incurred fighting the “war on terror”.

As a consequence, a serious downgrade of US-Pakistani relations was the expected outcome, as threats from Washington usually follow a set pattern.

Surprisingly, no major fallout has been observed as yet and the new Afghanistan policy may prove to be a non-starter. Various factors have contributed to the prevailing calm.

First, China immediately supported Pakistan, with Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying announcing: “Pakistan is at the forefront of the counterterrorism efforts. For many years, it has made positive efforts and great sacrifices for combating terrorism and made important contributions to upholding world peace and regional stability. We believe that the international community should fully recognize the efforts made by Pakistan in fighting terrorism.” 

Noting that Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Afghanistan and Pakistan only recently, Hua recounted China’s efforts for reconciliation between the two countries.

Signifying Russia’s support for Pakistan, the Kremlin’s presidential envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, also stated that Islamabad was “a key regional player to negotiate with” and that “putting pressure [on Pakistan] may seriously destabilize the region-wide security situation and result in negative consequences for Afghanistan”.

Thus the new US policy only helped bring the region closer together on the Afghanistan issue.

Second, ignoring the practical aspect, the new policy did not take stock of the geopolitical realities whereby all US and NATO supplies arrive via crucial supply routes in Pakistan, whereas India lacks borders with landlocked Afghanistan so it cannot provide the requisite logistics or deploy there.

As later acknowledged by senior US officials, Washington continues to count on the lines of communication on the ground that pass through Pakistan, in fact even more than in the past, keeping in view Trump’s decision to enhance the US military presence in Afghanistan. Realistically, any rupture in US-Pakistani ties is not practical.

Third, Islamabad has simply suspended all bilateral talks with the US, postponing Assistant Secretary of State Alice Wells’ visit to Pakistan “until a mutually convenient time”. As well, postponement of the Pakistani foreign minister’s meeting with his counterpart in Washington was followed up by rescheduling of a visit by a delegation led by senior White House National Security Council official Lisa Curtis, who is believed to have played a major role in formulating the new US strategy regarding Pakistan.

Originally, Trump’s policy announcement was to be followed up with incisive talks on three levels – cabinet, foreign affairs and security – in a bid to establish new guidelines for US-Pakistani ties. Since then, the only talks between the two countries have been between US Ambassador David Hale and the Pakistani national security adviser, retired Lieutenant-General Nasser Khan Janjua, in which the former tried to save the situation and backtrack as much as possible. The gist of the back-channel talks was that Trump did not actually blame Pakistan and his statements had been misinterpreted.

In retrospect, erroneous briefings regarding “aid” given by the US to Pakistan may have brought about the hasty new policy. As Pakistani parliamentarian Chaudhry Nisar has said, an audit of US aid received during the past 10 years is necessary, as “it’s not billions of dollars, it is peanuts”. Having remained Interior Minister until only recently, he clarified that the Coalition Support Fund paid by the US “is for the services rendered by Pakistan” such as land and air routes used by the Americans, and even those are partially pending.

Even on the military front Pakistan cannot be held responsible. Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa has stated, “Pakistan has already cleared all its areas indiscriminately and has started unilateral border security measures including fencing,” adding that, “Pakistan cannot bring [the] Afghan war into Pakistan”.

Considering US military assessments regarding the more than 40% of Afghanistan under Taliban control, it is unlikely that they would need “safe havens” in neighboring Pakistan. Bringing peace to Afghanistan is only possible through dialogue and a political settlement among all the stakeholders rather than a long-drawn-out war that destabilizes the country.

spokesman for the US State Department finally announced: “We continue to value our partnership with Pakistan and look forward to scheduling meetings at a mutually convenient time.”

Meanwhile it appears that some in the US are aware that the new strategy could end up antagonizing Pakistan without achieving the US objective of winning the war in Afghanistan.

Sabena Siddiqui

Foreign Affairs Journalist, Lawyer and geopolitical analyst. Writing about modern China, the Belt and Road Initiative, Middle East and South Asia. Bylines in Al-Monitor, The Diplomat, South China Morning Post and Asia Research Institute's Asia Dialogue Twitter @sabena_siddiqi

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