Sticking it to Pakistan
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BY M U N I R A K R A M | 7/23/2017 12:00:00 AM
THE Trump administration is about to complete its much-awaited comprehensive review of US policies on Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. There is widespread speculation that the new policy will involve intensified US military operations in Afghanistan, including the addition of several thousand troops, a tougher posture towards Pakistan and closer cooperation with India.

Questions still abound about America`s strategic objectives in Afghanistan. US generals, who appear to run Afghan policy in the Trump administration so far, have repeated the usual mantra about eliminating terrorism and militancy. But their strategic objectives, even if not yet endorsed by the US president, now appear to be much broader than the pacification of Afghanistan and an early exit from there.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the primary aim of the US `establishment`in Afghanistan is to prop up its client regime in Kabul, neutralise the rival influence of China, Russia, Iran or Pakistan in Afghanistan and, if needed, to use it as a base to project power in the entire region. As the commanding US general in Afghanistan recently declared: `We are staying` (indefinitely).

While the US and Kabul continue to declare that they favour a negotiated settlement with the Afghan Taliban, they insist on terms that are obviously unacceptable to the latter, ensuring a continuation of the Afghan conflict. Indeed, the persistence of conflict within Afghanistan and the region creates conditions to promote what may well be the new strategic objective of the US and India: to disrupt the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and prevent China`s direct access to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean.

The reported presence of some Afghan Taliban leaders in Quetta, or a few fighters in the scattered hideouts in the forests of Fata, is not critical to the military outcome in Afghanistan. The insurgency now operates from the vast areas the Taliban and other groups, like the militant Islamic State (IS), control within Afghanistan.

But Washington blames Pakistan for the military stalemate in Afghanistan for several reasons: one, to explain the US military`s failure; two, to justify escalated US air and ground operations; three, to pressure Pakistan to take military action against the Afghan Taliban, especially the Haqqanis, andease the US fight against them; and four, perhaps to condone the (Indo-Kabul) intervention from Afghan territory to destabilise Pakistan and disrupt the CPEC venture.

Moreover, American demands on Pakistan are no longer limited to the Afghan Taliban or the Haqqanis. Apart from ignoring the achievements of Pakistan`s several past and ongoing military operations against various militant groups, the US now also demands Pakistani action against Kashmiri groups to accommodate its Indian (anti-China) ally.

While Indian repression is under way in occupied Kashmir, Pakistan will be loath to act against the Kashmiris. America`s accommodation of India`s objectives makes it impossible for Islamabad to evolve a strategic agreement with the US on regional peace and security,including Afghanistan.

Numerous reports in the American media have asserted that the US will henceforth rely on `sticks` rather than `incentives` to secure Pakistan`s cooperadon against terrorists and `safe havens`on its territory.

The actions to`punish`Pakistan proposedin the US media, think tanks and Congress include: a) a cut-off of Coalition Support Funds. The US defence secretary has blocked $50 million f rom the 2016 reimbursement and Congress has enlarged the onerous condidons (cooperadon against the Afghan Taliban, Haqqanis and Kashmiri groups) to release the 2017 CSF allocation which Pakistan will be unable to meet. It will have to live without this money.

b) cancellation of `non-Nato ally` status. Since Pakistan is unlikely to buy any advanced US weapons, the impact of this measure would be mostly symbolic.

c) intensified US drone strikes on Pakistan territory. Pakistan reportedly shot down a wayward Iranian drone. Willit shoot down a US drone? Or, conduct Pakistani drone/air strikes against the TTP and Jamaatul Ahrar (JuA)`safe havens`in Afghanistan? d) cross-border operation by US/Afghan forces.

This would be a gross violation of Pakistan`s sovereignty and a dangerous precedent likely to be emulated by India. Pakistan will be obliged to respond militarily in case of such intervention.

e) visa and financial restrictions on designated officials. This will have no meaningful impact.

Pakistan could respond with equivalent measures.f) sanctions against designated entities/agencies. Again, these would mostly have symbolic effect.

g) designation of Pakistan as a `state sponsor of terrorism`. This will be a strategic development. It would put Pakistan in the company of America`s enemies: Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Syria. It could propel Islamabad into open support for the Afghan Taliban and the Kashmiri freedom struggle.

h) US financial restrictions, including on US dollar transactions by Pakistani banks. Pakistan will be obliged to rely on China to avoid an economic collapse.

Apart from reacting to US sanctions, Pakistan could take other calibrated and graduated measures to retaliate against the US `sticks`.

These could include: a halt or drastic slowdown in the transport of US-Nato supplies to Afghanistan across Pakistan territory; suspension of all/most Afghan transit trade; ban on over-flights of US, Nato, Afghan and Indian military-related flights to and from Afghanistan; accelerated expulsion of Afghanrefugees;expulsionof identified/suspected US-Nato and Afghan intelligence personnel; withdrawal of recognition from the Kabul regime and formation of an Afghan `government in exile` (including the Afghan Taliban and disaffected leaders like Dostum).

India will, without doubt, attempt to take advantage of Pakistan-US tensions. Terrorist attacks by the TTP, JuA and IS against Pakistan could intensify. New Delhi may feel sufficiently emboldened to actually conduct the vaunted `surgical strikes` across the LoC. This could ignite a war with Pakistan which will not remain `limited` and may escalate to the nuclear level.

Pakistan`s current domestic crisis has restricted its ability to influence the policies of the Trump administration. Yet, the stakes are high. Even at this late stage, Pakistan should engage the White House and responsible US leaders to clarify positions and explore avenues to avoid a mutually damaging confrontation. Simultaneously, Islamabad should open urgent consultations with China and other friendly powers to develop a collective response to emerging US policies in Afghanistan and South Asia. • The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.