Pakistan is being increasingly pressured by both its state and non-state actors to jettison its traditional dependence on the United States over grants and defence supplies, and forge a stronger Islamabad-Moscow-Beijing axis, Indian agencies tracking Pakistan’s domestic developments told The Sunday Guardian. They added that the neighbouring country’s sudden revision of foreign policy was prompted by India and the Donald Trump administration inching closer on key geo-strategic and security issues.
Pakistan’s hunt for new allies grew stronger after it was publicly reprimanded by US President Donald Trump last week, say sources in the intelligence establishment. President Trump said that Washington could “no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organisations when we have been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars, at the same time, they are housing the very terrorists we are fighting...That must change immediately”. In the same breath, he commended India for its role in Afghanistan. “We appreciate India’s important contributions to stability in Afghanistan, but India makes billions of dollars in trade from the United States and we want them to help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development.”
Among the non-state actors exerting pressure on Pakistan are, according to the people following the developments, ISI-supported jihadist groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammad that wield considerable influence on some of the lawmakers of that country.
“The leaders of these two groups have got scared after the US President categorically said that his country ‘cannot remain silent’ on the safe havens that Pakistan was giving them. The chiefs of both Lashkar and Jaish, who are right now under ‘house arrest’ are likely to stay protected by the ISI and are unlikely to venture out. The ISI is afraid that the US might try to ‘remove’ these leaders. To counter this, Pakistan policymakers are working on strengthening their ties with Russia, which, if done, may stop the US from undertaking any overt or covert missions inside Pakistan, which they can do quite easily at present,” an official source said.
Pakistanis are worried that President Trump seeking greater Indian involvement in Afghanistan will lead to India sending troops to the war ravaged country.
Trump’s statement was discussed in the Pakistani Senate on 24 August, when Senator Mohammad Mohsin Khan Laghari said, “I cannot understand why are we so shocked about Donald Trump’s speech. It was not like that until yesterday America and Pakistan were brothers and suddenly today they are fighting. These things had been evolving for a while and we could see where they were going with this. We have seen American failure in their 16 years of war, spanning through four presidential terms. Trillions of dollars have been spent in Afghanistan, but after all those failures, they need to make someone a whipping boy, somebody needs to be blamed and so Pakistan is being held responsible. They have spoken about sealing Mexico by building a wall, but here we are facing losses and yet nobody has taken account of the number of our casualties. Nobody stood with us on this issue.”
Quoting ancient Indian strategist Chanakya, Laghari said, “In 300 BC, Chanakya had said that in trans-border relations there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies. There are only permanent interests. We need to realise that we need to watch out for our interests. Our interests might not align with American interests or Chinese interests or Indian interests. We need to take care of ourselves, what is good for Pakistan and take that forward.”
Sources said that Pakistan has accepted the fact that US might disavow it. Senior Pakistan Muslim League-Functional (PML-F) Senator, Syed Muzaffar Hussain Shah, while speaking at the Senate, underlined this possibility: “For the last few months we have seen that the Indian viewpoint and perception on South Asia seems to have gained ground with the American foreign policy. In the last few months, we have seen pronouncements made from the State Department and the Pentagon, which represent the Indian viewpoint on South Asia. The Indian viewpoint seems to have made headway in the American Caucus; it has made headway in the American Congress, in the American media and especially in American think tanks.”
The Trump Administration’s statements on the Kashmir issue have further frustrated Pakistan, which had deployed teams to gather support for its “right to Kashmir”. After coming to power, while speaking in Riyadh, President Trump described the “Kashmir struggle” as terrorism, which was read by many as seconding the Indian stand. He imposed sanctions against one of the biggest Kashmiri home-grown terror groups, Hizbul Mujahideen and its chief Syed Salahuddin.
An official source said that the Pakistani generals are working overtime to develop and strengthen the prospective “Islamabad-Moscow-Beijing” axis. “Pakistan is literally begging Moscow to step into the role of a big brother, which the US had been playing till now. This has been going on for the last three-four years, but it has gained more urgency now. The first ever joint military drill that Russia and Pakistan conducted in 2016 was an indication of what Rawalpindi GHQ was expecting from Moscow. Pakistan is trying to develop warmth in the relationship by seeking to buy arms from Moscow and we expect that Moscow too, while keeping our concerns in mind, will oblige them, purely for business reasons,” the official added.
REALISATION IN WASHINGTON
Pranay Kotasthane, research fellow with the Bangalore based strategic think tank, The Takshashila Institution, said that the US has realised that its relationship with Pakistan was doing it more harm than good: “There is finally a realisation in Washington DC that its strategy of relying on Pakistan to tackle terrorists, who are in turn harboured by Pakistan itself, was destined for failure. For some time now, the duplicitous role played by Pakistan over the last 16 years is being talked about openly in DC. Trump’s decision should be seen as part of this changing narrative. Once Pakistan’s role was internalised in American strategic circles, it became easier for Trump to tide over views that advocated more of the same: Pakistan, as a part of the solution to Afghanistan, India as merely an add-on. With Trump willing to go tough on Pakistan, US would welcome India’s support in Afghanistan, because India has played a commendable role in economic development of Afghanistan since 2001.”
According to him, sending Indian soldiers to Afghanistan is not required: “No, not required. There are other potent ways for force multiplication. India already trains Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) officers. India has also delivered four Mi-25 (Mi-24D) helicopter gunships to the nascent Afghan Air Force (AAF). These methods of military strength building are more favourable, than putting Indian boots on the ground. Moreover, the US has a comparative advantage in getting rid of terrorists, while India enjoys comparative advantage in state capacity building, economic development and political negotiations. As long as the US can stay true to its commitment, India can share its expertise in other areas.”
According to experts, India has a lot to offer in the field of education—establishing engineering, management and healthcare institutes in collaboration with popular Indian universities, building a small-business incubator, which can connect entrepreneurial Afghans to the Indian business ecosystem, and helping in setting up an optical fibre network for broadband communication across Afghanistan. India must also convince the US that if India is to take up greater responsibilities in Afghanistan, the US must not block the Chabahar port which India is developing in Iran.
Reflecting on Pakistan’s dismay over India partnering Afghanistan’s nation building with US backing, Kotasthane said, “Implementing a new strategy along the lines of Trump’s speech won’t be easy. Pakistan will use all the resources it can muster to derail the implementation of a new strategy. In no circumstances will it welcome a greater Indian role in Afghanistan. In the days to come, we can expect threats over closure of NATO supply lines through Pakistan and a spike in terrorist attacks on American assets within Afghanistan. That will be the true test—will the Trump administration be able to absorb these shocks and march ahead, or will the US return to the weak-footed strategy of relying on Pakistan to tackle the terrorists backed by Pakistan itself?”
Vishal Chandra, research fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) and author of The Unfinished War in Afghanistan: 2001-2014, said: “President Donald Trump expects India to do more especially in the area of ‘economic assistance and development’, something India has already been doing since 2002. Today, India is the fifth largest bilateral donor and certainly the largest ‘development partner’ of the Afghan people in the region. In fact, by deliberately identifying and specifying the sector, even as he appreciated and sought India’s enhanced role and contribution in stabilising Afghanistan, Trump has made it rather very clear that Washington will not be asking New Delhi to deploy its troops in Afghanistan. He has pre-empted any such impression or apprehension that might be there from gaining further traction among countries in the region, particularly Pakistan”.
He added “Trump is conscious of the fact that Pakistan has a critical role to play in his strategy. However, at the same time, he appears equally cognizant of the fact that there can be no long-term stability and security in Afghanistan unless Pakistan is made to give up its policy of sponsoring and harbouring terrorist networks that continue to launch annual ‘kill offensives’, targeting innocent men, women and children across Afghanistan. For over a decade now, the Rahbari Shura or the leadership council of the Afghan Taliban has been freely operating from within Pakistan.”