A couple of years back some experts in Washington smelt Pakistani designs and resultantly favored ‘distancing’ but others preferred to keep the nuclear country ‘engaged’. The strategy has surely not paid off. US Defence Secretary James Mattis has now confirmed that the Trump administration’s new strategy for Afghanistan will have a regional context, read Pakistan angle, that could change the nature of US military engagement in Afghanistan.
Media reports have speculated for long that the new strategy may redefine its relations with both Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is the first time that the review is admitted by senior officials to involve Pakistan as well. Apart from sending 4500 additional troops to Afghanistan the new strategy also mulls changing the troops’ role on the ground. The review, stated to be in its final stages, will be shared with the US Congress before its release by July end.
The Senator John McCain, head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, had a key role in formulating the new policy. During his visit to the Pak-Afghan region in early July the Senator had sought Pakistan’s cooperation particularly against the Haqqani network and other terrorist organisations to deny them safe space outside Afghan borders. He had urged Pakistan to confront the Afghan Taliban or face the consequences. At a July 4 news briefing in Kabul McCain had said, ‘If they don’t change their behaviour, maybe we should change our behaviour towards Pakistan as a nation.’
Since then, Congress has adopted several measures making US civil and military assistance to Pakistan conditional to severing links to the Haqqani network, preventing militants from using Pak soil for launching attacks into neighbouring countries and releasing Dr Shakil Afridi, who helped the CIA trace Osama bin Laden to Abbottabad compound. The new strategy purports to ‘align everything’ to formulate a strong US response to militancy in Afghanistan.
The US national security adviser, Gen H.R. McMaster leads the new policy team which has already consulted both Pakistani and Afghan officials. The supporting efforts reportedly involve sorting out interagency nuances hence the delay. The team is also exploring the possibility of replacing US troops in Afghanistan with private military contractors.
No one wants Pakistan to meddle in Afghanistan where its strategic objective has failed miserably. Its persistent support to terror groups has made Afghanistan a running sore. Washington could well be heading for another Saigon unless it deters Pakistan, China or Russia’s interests in the region. Winston Churchill once said: Americans finally do the right thing after exhausting all options! Probably he was right. After long sixteen years, Washington has now called the Islamabad bluff. The bell tolls for Pakistan which cannot keep milking the West by perpetually holding a gun to its own head. Pakistan was given a choice of being either with the US or against them and it chose the former. Running with the hare and hunting with the hounds can no more be an option. Islamabad neither has a choice nor any reason to complain.
The US has paid Pakistan sumptuously for its services but the latter has not delivered on its promises. The push has now come to a shove; either deliver or face the consequences. Pakistan can’t expect to be paid again and again for doing nothing. Washington may not be leaving Afghanistan any time soon; the job is not finished as yet. Given growing Russian, Chinese and Iranian interests in Afghanistan the US could very well mull establishing permanent base in Kabul. That could be another worry for Pakistan.