Trump draws geopolitical battle lines in South Asia

Donald Trump

by James M. Dorsey

President Donald J. Trump has drawn battle lines in South Asia that are likely to have a ripple effect across Eurasia: a stepped-up war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, a tougher approach towards Pakistan’s selective support of militancy, and closer cooperation with India – moves that are likely to push Pakistan closer to China and Russia.

There is little doubt that Mr. Trump had few good choices 16 years into an Afghanistan war in which the Taliban and other militant groups are holding their ground, if not making advances, buffeted by Pakistani policies that are rooted in the fabric of the country’s military and society. Similarly, there is little doubt that Pakistan’s convoluted relationship to militancy poses serious challenges to US policy in South Asia as well as a global effort to contain political violence.

Nonetheless, Mr. Trump could find that his newly announced South Asia policy will fail to achieve his goal of an “honourable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices” made by the United States. The silver lining is that Pakistan may temporarily engineer a stay of execution but ultimately will find itself in a cul de sac from which there is no escape.

Mr. Trump, despite refusing to disclose details of his strategy in Afghanistan, made clear in a speech outlining his South Asia policy, that he hopes that an increased US military presence will force the Taliban to come to the negotiating table. Yet, achieving that would require the kind of military and political engagement in Afghanistan that Mr. Trump seems unwilling to embrace.

US media reported that Mr. Trump envisioned only a modest increase of several thousand troops in a country wracked by corruption whose military is largely incapable of standing its ground on its own. Various military and political analysts suggest that it would take a far greater commitment to militarily turn the tables on the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Moreover, Mr. Trump’s exclusive focus on defeating militants militarily or bombing them into submission ignores the broader economic, social and political problems that fuel militancy in Afghanistan and drive Pakistan’s support for the Taliban and a selection of other groups. “We are not nation building again. We are killing terrorists,” Mr. Trump said.

Announcing a tougher approach towards Pakistan, Mr. Trump insisted that the South Asian nation’s partnership with the United States would not survive if it continued to harbour and support groups that target the United States.

Adding fuel to the fire, the president emphasized the US’ strategic partnership with India, calling on it to support his administration’s policy with increased Indian economic assistance to Afghanistan. In doing so, Mr. Trump challenged a pillar of Pakistani policy towards Afghanistan: limiting Indian influence in the country at whatever price.

Mr. Trump’s approach to South Asia puts to the test two assumptions: that Pakistan will want to preserve its partnership with the United States at whatever cost and that it has few alternatives. Mr. Trump could well find that at least in the short term those assumptions are incorrect.

Pakistan’s relationship to militancy is engrained in a deeply-rooted zero-sum-game approach towards India within the military as well as an empathy for Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism that is woven into the fabric of the security forces, parts of the government bureaucracy, and significant segments of society.

Pakistan’s use of militant groups to counter India in Afghanistan and Kashmir as well as an anti-dote to nationalist insurgents in the restive province of Balochistan is moreover tacitly endorsed by China’s repeated vetoing of the designation of Masood Azhar, an anti-Indian militant, former fighter in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, and Islamic scholar who graduated from a Deobandi madrassah, Darul Uloom Islamia Binori Town in Karachi, that is the alma mater of numerous Pakistani militants.

Moreover, China, with an investment of more than $50 billion in Pakistani infrastructure and energy that would turn the country into a key node, if not the crown jewel of its One Belt, One Road initiative, is a logical escape for a government and a military that lacks the political will to confront its own demons. Similarly, Russia, long eager to gain access to warm water ports and expand its influence in Central and South Asia, is certain to see opportunity in further estrangement between Pakistan and the United States.

Closer ties to China and Russia may offer Pakistan a temporary escape from dealing with structural problems. Ultimately, however, Pakistan’s relationship to militancy is likely to also complicate its relations with Beijing and Moscow amid escalating violence in Balochistan and no end in sight to the militant insurgency in Afghanistan.

A series of devastating attacks in Balochistan over the last year that have targeted Pakistani cadets, decimated the legal profession in the capital Quetta, and targeted Chinese nationals as well kidnappings and drive-by shootings pose a serious obstacle to China’s strategic ambition to extend its maritime power across the Indian Ocean and turn the sleepy Baloch fishing port of Gwadar into a gateway to its troubled north-western province of Xinjiang.

Pakistan has, moreover, in the past year turned a blind eye to Saudi funding of anti-Shiite, anti-Iranian militants in Balochistan, including a Pakistani cleric who remains a member of the Council of Islamic Ideology, a government advisory body tasked with ensuring that legislation does not contradict Islamic law, despite having been designated a global terrorist by the US Treasury.

China has too much invested in for Pakistan’s selective support of militancy or the advantages of needling India by protecting Mr. Azhar to ultimately get in the way of achieving its geopolitical goals vested in its One Belt, One Road initiative.

As a result, Pakistan’s refusal to confront its demons could in the final analysis leave it out in the cold: its relationship with the United States severely damaged, India strengthened by closer cooperation with the US, and China and Russia demanding that it do what Washington wanted in the first place. Pakistan is likely to have fewer, if any, options and no escape routes once China and Russia come to the conclusion Mr. Trump has already articulated.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and four forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa as well as The Gulf Crisis: Small States Battle It Out, Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom. Republished, with permission, from The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

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  1. President’s Trump’s new Afghanistan Strategy requires a rethink of Pakistan’s policies towards both the US and Afghanistan.
    President Trump laid out a new strategy for the 16-year-old war in Afghanistan earlier this week. The strategy lacked specifics but stated that it would focus on the primary mission of getting rid of terrorists and its supporters from Afghanistan and not on nation building.
    The speech also contained harsh words for Pakistan including statements to the effect that US support would be conditional on Pakistan helping the US in its primary mission and in taking out safe havens for the terrorists meaning the Haqqani network from inside the border in Pakistan. The speech also hurled the usual accusations against Pakistan on its duplicitous role in Afghanistan despite the “billions of dollars” in aid from the USA. The speech went on to say that it will not be “business as usual” with Pakistan any more. It also contained veiled threats that the US sees may rely much more on India to solve the Afghanistan problem.
    These statements have been the subject of much press coverage both in Pakistan and internationally. The Pakistan media, including talk shows and the editorial pages are full of statements that range from hurt feelings – “we have done so much to combat terrorism and this is what we get in return”, to statements like, good riddance” and “we can do without US aid” and “let us see how the US can resolve anything without Pakistan’s support.”
    I think this discussion misses the point.
    Foreign Policy is not a soap opera but is based on the cold calculus of realpolitik.
    The US will act to safeguard its own interests and Pakistan should do likewise. An international relationship based on anything else will result in disappointment for one or both parties.
    The changing geo-political situation may require a re- think of Pakistan’s policy towards the US. Not because the US has failed Pakistan, but because our interests may no longer be congruent.
    We already see muttering to this effect in Pakistani circles, and assertions of support from China and even Russia. China has been an all-weather friend, but the statements from Russia may also provide interesting opportunities to diversify Pakistan’s relationships.
    However, what has not been discussed very much is that perhaps Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy also requires a paradigm shift.
    We need to ask ourselves why is it necessary that Pakistan has an active role in shaping US policy in Afghanistan. It does not have one in shaping the US policy in Iran, China, Sri Lanka, so why should Afghanistan be different.
    The concern of course is driven by the mistaken notion of strategic depth – the idea that a friendly Afghanistan is critical to the security and stability of Pakistan and that this would provide strategic depth to Pakistan were it to be attacked by India on the Eastern front.
    But this has been a pipe dream since the time this theory was formulated. The concept of strategic depth has literally back fired. It is the Afghans who have repeatedly sought refuge in Pakistan, either in the form of 2-3 million refugees or in the form of Taliban formations, who have used Pakistan as a haven to launch attacks on their opponents in their homeland and now in Pakistan.
    Afghanistan has always been less than friendly towards Pakistan. Please recall that it was the only country that voted against Pakistan’s UN membership in 1947. The brief period of friendly relations was at the time when the US was using Pakistan to combat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and the brief period following this when the Taliban were in power.
    Even the friendliest Afghan Government has always kept their own interests, as they see them, first as indeed any rational government would. We see that Pakistan has been able to exercise very little leverage with them.
    On the other hand, our Afghan policy has had disastrous effects on Pakistan’s body politics. It has resulted in the rise of extremist religious thinking, the Kalashnikov and the drug culture the rise of Jihadis and ultimately terrorist which have shaken the very foundation of our state. At present, Pakistan considers most of major internal terrorist’s incidents to be related to cross border incursions from Afghanistan.
    Our policies regarding Afghanistan need to more Pakistan-Centric.
    We first interfered in Afghan affairs at the behest of the US and right-wing forces in our own country to help the Americans throw out the Soviets. In hind-sight, as we have seen this may not have been the best course to follow.
    It is time that Pakistan recognizes the limits on the extent of friendship possible between the two countries and manages its expectations vis –a- vis Afghanistan on a more rational and realistic basis.
    As experience has shown it may not be realistic or even necessary for Pakistan to expect a completely pro- Pakistan government in Afghanistan. If this realization takes hold then there is no reason to provide the alleged safe-haven to any Afghan formation in Pakistan. This move should by itself reduce any incentives for the Afghan Government to do the same on its side of the border.
    Secondly and perhaps importantly, we need to recognize that countries in the South Asia region and those on the Western border of Pakistan will see economic advantage in developing good relations with India which has developed into a major economic power house in the region. This behavior is not limited to Afghanistan. We also see this in the case of Iran and Saudi Arabia.
    Therefore, my second point, we cannot expect everybody in our neighborhood to consider our “so called adversary” as their adversary also.
    If anything, we should try to normalize relations with India. The key to peace on the Western border may lie on the Eastern border.

  2. We should not forget that we created TALIBAN ,with help from SAUDI’S and operative assistance of Pakistan’s military…The time has proved that reversal of what we did ,and with the same ideological operatives,is not easy…We have succeeded in an almost- massacre of Afghanis..and destroying all their national infrastructure ,which were built by the Soviets…
    Good job.!! Bravo..!!

  3. US and Pakistan interests in Afghanistan have never been congruent, especially now as the US advocates more India influence in Afghanistan. General McChrystal addressed this problem in his assessment for President Obama eight years ago, it’s nothing new.

    General McChrystal’s Report on Aug 30, 2009 included: ‘Afghanistan’s insurgency is clearly supported from Pakistan. . .and are reportedly aided by some elements of Pakistan’s ISI [Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence ].” . . .”Indian political and economic influence is increasing in Afghanistan, including significant efforts and financial investment. In addition, the current Afghan government is perceived by Islamabad to be pro-Indian. While Indian activities largely benefit the Afghan people, increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate regional tensions and encourage Pakistani countermeasures in Afghanistan or India.” Obama three months later stupidly stated that Pakistan would continue to be a US “partner” even though it was supporting the “insurgents” killing US troops. — Obama, Dec 1, 2009, West Point: “. . .Third, we will act with the full recognition that our success in Afghanistan is inextricably linked to our partnership with Pakistan.”

    India has poured more than $1 billion into Afghanistan reconstruction projects and humanitarian aid, making it one of the largest donors to the war-torn country. A new national assembly building in Kabul and major power line and road construction have been among the main projects funded by India.

    Pakistan will never accept India in Afghanistan. Pakistan doesn’t want to be in an Indian sandwich, with enemy forces on its east and west flanks. So to simplify it’s Pashtuns (Pakistan and Taleban) versus Tajiks (US and India) and there’s no possibility for compromise. Pakistan has China’s support, for one thing.

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