The repercussions of Donald Trump’s decision to ramp up operations of the American military in Afghanistan are starting to be seen throughout the region. The latest move in US strategy to finally bring an end to the 16-year-old Afghanistan conflict has started to stoke reactions from neighboring countries. Nowhere can this be observed better than in Pakistan.
This should not come as a surprise.
One of the key points in Trump’s new strategy for Afghanistan, which he announced in late August, was cracking down on Pakistan’s support of the Taliban and other militant factions American troops are opposing in the country.
This was not just hard rhetoric.
The White House informed Congress shortly following the announced Afghanistan plan that military aid to Pakistan in the order of $255 million was being placed in a type of escrow account until Pakistan was able to demonstrate that it had taken steps to cut off the flow resources and support to militants.
Furthermore, Pakistan itself has security interests concerning Afghanistan. Since the beginning of the American lead operations in the country following 9/11, the mountainous border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan has been used by Taliban and Al Qaida fighters as hide-outs and channels of transportation. This period has been marked by countless skirmishes between militants and Pakistani forces stationed at the border. In fact, one of Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s first reactions to Trump’s accusing comments in his strategy announcement was to point out that his country has sustained heavy losses over the years as a result of the deteriorating security conditions in neighboring Afghanistan.
Yes, Pakistan has a significant stake in the outcome of hostilities in Afghanistan.
But what will its reaction be to this revitalized American stance on the country?
The truth is, there may be a significant discrepancy between what policymakers in Pakistan would like to do and what they are able to implement in practice. While the country’s leaders may face pressures from the outside, especially from the US, interests and sentiments that permeate Pakistan’s governmental bureaucracy, as well as its security apparatus, are not always in line with those of policymakers. This can, and has, lead to a hesitancy in Pakistan committing fully to the American strategy for Afghanistan.
First off, it should be noted that Pakistan has long held, and has openly stated that there is no military solution for Afghanistan. Period.
The latest re-iteration of this stance was at the recent meeting of Pakistani Foreign Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif with Turkish leadership in Ankara, including President Recip Tayyip Erdogan, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, and Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu.
They talked a lot about Afghanistan.
During the meeting, as reported by Pakistani media, both countries' foreign ministers agreed that there is no military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan. The Ministers rather stressed the need for regional powers to work towards an “Afghan-led and Afghan-owned” peace process. In other words, Pakistan’s position is that militants cannot be snuffed out with American military might. The only way hostilities will come to an end, is if militants decide- on the basis of some type of interfactional agreement within the country and backed by regional players- that they are going to stop fighting.
Regardless of whether or not this assertion is true, (this author happens to think it is dead on), the implications for Pakistan’s cooperation with the US troop surge and reinvigorated operations in Afghanistan is clear.
It’s a giant disclaimer.
What is being said in essence is “Listen, we can’t fully support this strategy because it’s one destined for failure, so don’t be surprised when we don’t go all in with you.”
However, at the same time, Pakistan does have interests in the US plan going well. Pakistan does want to stay on the America’s good side after all, and it certainly doesn’t want conflict in Afghanistan to spill over the Pakistani border, as has been a real threat for a decade and a half.
So while Pakistan preaches that war is not the solution, it is simultaneously gearing up for battle. A few days ago, media reported that Prime Minister Abbasi reached out to the US to inform them that they were interested in implementing joint operations with American forces as the troop surge takes off.
This may seem like a contradiction, but it’s not.
Everyone knows that Pakistan has a serious extremist problem. ISIS has taken root in the country, and radical religious groups both funnel support to fuel conflicts in the region, as well as execute operations in the country. Pakistan’s leadership is more than willing to use force to suppress these elements. Over the past several years, Pakistan has arrested countless extremist leaders (even executed some), conducted special operations on its soil to eliminate cells of radicals, and deployed military forces in its major cities in response to security threats. The last thing it wants is for a re-invigorated Afghanistan conflict to bring more violence to its doorstep.
So why the hesitancy to go all in with America?
Here’s where the conflicting interests within Pakistan come to the forefront.
To put it bluntly, the ranks of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies and military are infused with extremist sympathizers, and have been for many years. The upper-middle management of these organizations have had actual former Mujahedeen fill their slots, people who gained their initial experience fighting Russians in Afghanistan in the 1980’s with the help of American logistics and money. The actions of these men and the organizations they run, while not necessarily reflecting the wishes of their political masters, have had a hugely detrimental effect on the fight against militants in Afghanistan.
The military and the primary Pakistani intelligence agency the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) actively support groups such as the Afghan Taliban and its powerful subgroup, known as the Haqqani Network. The Taliban’s Pakistani representation, which is based in Quetta in Balochistan province, as well as other cities and towns across the country, openly recruit men to fight against Americans in Afghanistan.
Other militant Islamic groups such as the infamous Lashkar-e-Taiba, with which the perpetrators of the 2008 Mumbai attacks were affiliated, and Harakat-ul-Mujahideen operate openly inside Pakistan.
Pakistani military and intelligence officials have knowingly passed along intelligence to Taliban, al Qaeda and other terrorist leaders and operatives to allow them to avoid being targeted in raids by coalition forces.
And that’s all on the security end.
On the political and civilian side, Pakistan harbors firmly anchored support for the Taliban and other similar groups. Pakistani banks and traditional money exchange networks known as ‘hawala,’ knowingly provide financial services for the Taliban.
Pakistani politicians and clerics support the Taliban and train their fighters at their madrassas.
Considering all of that, it is clear why Pakistani leaders, despite their interests in American success in Afghanistan, cannot be too openly supportive of US efforts in the country. It also calls into question whether or not it is wise at all for the US to have any level of cooperation with Pakistan, a country that cannot guarantee its military and intelligence services will be fully on board.
Trump’s directive of putting the cash flow to Pakistan on hold may, in fact, signal a significant change of general policy regarding US cooperation with Pakistan on security issues in the region. Pakistan’s recently outstretched hand to assist America in military operations is likely an attempt to come-to-terms in light of this clearly harsher stance on America’s part. Afterall, Pakistan largely relies on American military funding to keep up what it can in suppressing extremism at home and keeping it at bay from afar.
It will be left to see how much Pakistani cooperation will characterize the troop surge. One thing is for sure, while the hands of Pakistan’s leadership may be tied, the current administration has clearly signaled that the status quo of Pakistan’s double dealings will not be tolerated anymore.