“They have given us nothing but lies and deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!” So tweeted the modestly self-styled “very stable genius” President Donald Trump, adding that the United States had given Pakistan more than $33 billion over the past 15 years. Analysts around the world are asking the same question: “Is this just another Trump tantrum, just an idle threat, or does this really signify a major change of US policy which will result in firm action against Pakistan?” Former US Presidents have made similar noises, only to back-track when the implications of downsizing financial support to Pakistan have been thought through. If Trump really does carry out his threat, will this open the way for China to build even more influence in South Asia to the detriment of the US?
But can Pakistan actually control the monster it largely created following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan? Islamabad has essentially four militant groups on its plate: the Pakistani Taliban, also known as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Afghan Taliban (AT), Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) and Al Qaeda (AQ). Of these, only the TTP is a threat to the Pakistani state. Many of its members were radicalised during the jihad against the Soviets in the 1980s, which both Pakistan and the US supported. This group has attacked Pakistani politicians, military and intelligence targets, police academies, civilians, mosques, hotels and churches, all with the aim of removing Pakistan’s democratically elected government and to impose Sharia. This is the only group against which the army has conducted operations with modest success. There has been no action taken against the other three groups, leading to widespread Western belief that they are not only tolerated, but actually supported as a tool of Pakistani strategy. AT is given sanctuary in the tribal areas and gives Pakistan leverage and strategic depth to limit any Indian involvement in Afghanistan. At the same time, LeT is encouraged as one of the main anti-India militant groups based in Pakistan fighting to free Kashmir from Indian control, alongside another group, Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM). Far from being a threat to Pakistan, it is believed that its spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) harbours ties and actively supports both groups. This is denied by Islamabad, which argues that both organisations are proscribed, but reports suggest that their leaders are largely allowed by the state to conduct their activities and live freely. For example, the leader of LeT, is an engineering university professor!
Trump believes that Pakistan can and should be active in countering all militant groups, especially AT, with its Haqqani affiliates, which ironically was the most favoured CIA-funded guerrilla group during the Reagan administration and is now its most fearsome enemy. Harboured safely in the tribal areas, its leaders openly boast about receiving assistance from Pakistan. This confirms the long-held US belief that Pakistan is playing a double game. Nothing illustrated this lack of trust more than the example of May 2011, when American commandos found and killed Osama bin Laden, whose hideout in Abbottabad was less than a mile from Pakistan’s Kakul Military Academy, the equivalent of West Point. Islamabad’s protests of ignorance about the hideout were simply not believed by the West and were widely ridiculed. If Trump carries out his threats, will this cause concern in Islamabad and in particular, Rawalpindi, the headquarters of the all-powerful military establishment? Will Trump’s actions force Pakistan to change its ways?
Pakistan has long believed that it holds two trump (sic) cards against the US: the need for the US to use its air and ground routes in supplying its troops in Afghanistan, and the fear of its nuclear arsenal falling into terrorist’s hands should the state fail. These cards have been used successfully over several past US administrations when similar threats of financial withdrawal have been made. This time it will be a tremendous gamble by Islamabad if it feels it can repeat its success of the past. Trump appears to be a President who acts according to his gut, rather than his brain and there are clear indications that he is less committed to success in Afghanistan, particularly if the recent mini-surge fails to show any significant progress. Take a look at the National Security Strategy document issued in December just before Trump’s January tweet: “We will press Pakistan to intensify its counterterrorism efforts, since no partnership can survive a country’s support for militants and terrorists who target a partner’s own service members and officials.” It is not inconceivable that this is a prelude to the US repeating the “Vietnam” solution of total withdrawal from Afghanistan, recognising that they cannot succeed there. History shows that the great fear of the “domino effect” in the Far East was a myth and that the US withdrawal was a smart move by President Richard Nixon. Nixon and Trump; now there’s an interesting linkage!
Faced with the huge drop in aid finance from the US what would Pakistan do? Only last week Pakistan’s Defence Minister, Khurram Dastgir Khan said that military and intelligence cooperation with the US has been suspended, contradicted five days later by US Defense Secretary James Mattis, who said that US and Pakistani military establishments were “maintaining contact regardless of the present circumstances”. Enter China, which has already announced that it is standing by and will foster closer ties with Pakistan. China, however, is not known for its largess and altruism in finance. The expensive Belt and Road Initiative is totally in its self-interest, with Chinese firms controlling all contracts with just a few crumbs from the table for local businesses. Take the unviable port in Hambantota, Sri Lanka, for example. It is said that the revenues from this enterprise have been paltry and now Sri Lanka cannot service the loans from China. Will this act as an example for the massive development in Pakistan’s port in Gwadar? China may well be willing to bail Pakistan out on a one-off basis, but it has refused to do so in the past and there is little reason to expect it to behave charitably now. China deems Pakistan to be a useful ally and an invaluable strategic surrogate against India in South Asia, but a lasting US aid cut-off could impose significant economic costs on Pakistan and it should take Trump seriously.
John Dobson worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s Office between 1995 and 1998 and is presently Chairman of the Plymouth University of the Third Age.