by Alia Akram
Since the Trump presidency began with a characteristically pugnacious, divisive, and even course inaugural address, the flurry of executive orders and official announcements has put paid to those who argued that electoral stridency would be tempered by restraint upon incumbency. Not so. Amid such escalation, and far from the US homeland, what are the hopes and fears in South Asia, home to more than 20% humankind?
From Soviet containment during the Cold War to non-proliferation, terrorism, and a resurgent China, the United States has been anything but isolationist in its policy toward this region of the world. Today, South Asia is bracing itself for a paradigm shift to a more militarist and more unilateralist stance under Donald Trump. As it waits, Islamabad has been cautious. After the announcement of the contentious Muslim ban, the Pakistan Foreign Office released a statement saying it was every country’s sovereign right to decide its immigration policy but that the ban might embolden terrorists.
A principal driver of the Trump’s security policy will be the “eradication of radical Islamic extremists.” Journalist Robert Fisk points out that Trump has used the word “Islamic” and not “Islamist,” suggesting that henceforth, in the Trump universe, terrorism will be faith-based and synonymous with Islam, contrary to the creed of sane, thinking people. Is this the proclamation of a new Armageddon? Do followers of other faiths stand sanitized of terrorism? What about Christian and Jewish terrorists? What about the self-acclaimed pacifist Buddhists in present day Burma who practice genocide on the Rohingyas at home and hurl them across the border into barb-wired Bangladeshi detention camps. What about the Hindu ultra-nationalists and their leaders Bal Thakeray of Mumbai and Prime Minister Narendra Modi? The bêtes noires of US failures in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan are tarred with the brush of terrorist and primed for righteous eradication. Those who terrorize but do not hurt US interests or homeland fall below the radar.
In Pakistan and Afghanistan, peace cannot come through war. Trump and his generals cannot eradicate the last militant standing and impose the peace of the graveyard. The Soviets tried war only to retreat across Amu Darya in sackcloth and ashes; George W. Bush fell into the same trap and the result is a shambles. Peace requires: an Afghan-owned, national political reconciliation process and an Afghan-driven dismantlement of militancy guaranteed by Afghanistan’s neighbors, and non-interference from outside powers. Trump threatens only assault and eradication.
Since June 2014, Pakistan has been involved in its own anti-terrorism operation, “Zarb-e-Azb,” which the Pakistan Army has sustained at a high cost in blood, money, and political capital. This operation has retaken the tribal areas from the terrorists, destroying their sanctuaries, infrastructure, and sleeper cells. It has also opened the next phase of better border management with Afghanistan. Blowback from Trump’s ham-fisted policies will likely complicate this operation. The hawks in the CIA may be tempted to restart their failed policy of drone attacks inside Pakistan with its predictable disastrous consequences. Drone strikes help breed visceral anti-Americanism, weakening the Pakistani state and armed forces in the eyes of their own public. This is hardly the recipe to maintain Pakistan as an indispensable partner in the fight against terrorists.
The Pakistan-India conundrum is fraught with the most risk to the region and beyond. The Trump call to arms against “militant Islam” feeds into the Modi narrative that Pakistan is a rogue state at the epicenter of terrorism and should be sanctioned into Iran-like isolation. Trump’s strategic alignment with India may encourage Modi into cross-border adventurism on any pretext. There have been several such indications lately. Since late 2016, cross-border firing across the Line of Control in Kashmir has been regular, ushering in a new chapter of India-Pakistan antagonism. Pakistan and India are nuclear states with acknowledged second-strike capability, and their considerable conventional forces have often been in eyeball to eyeball confrontation. They have fought four wars since 1948. It would be unwise for Trump to inadvertently trigger a fifth.
A mature and delicately calibrated US policy is called for in South Asia. Trump’s rhetoric raises legitimate fears of sparking a conflict not easily contained.
Alia Akram is a Pakistani journalist.