When the US President Donald Trump talked tough on Pakistan, underlining a new South Asia policy many in Delhi were ecstatic. For the public, American presidential bashing of Pakistan was unprecedented. Pessimists in Delhi, however, cautioned that the change of course in Washington towards Pakistan might be more apparent than real.
Their scepticism seems warranted after Trump’s tweet last week welcoming Pakistan’s assistance in rescuing a Canadian-American family from the clutches of their extremist captors. The pessimists point to the recurring pattern in which the US issues threats and Pakistan offers some minor concessions to placate America. Washington then returns to acquiescing in Pakistan’s bad behaviour.
In his August speech, Trump had accused Pakistan of taking billions of dollars of American money and undermining it in Afghanistan through terror groups. Pakistan is “housing the very terrorists that we are fighting. But that will have to change, and that will change immediately,” Trump had declared. Has America’s much vaunted pressure on Pakistan come to an end in barely two months?
Realists would say, “not so fast”. Since he moved into the White House at the beginning to 2016, no one has accused Trump of consistent articulation of policy. A tweet today from the president could be very different in tone and substance from the tweet yesterday. Some would say “unpredictability” is very much a part of Trump’s overall strategy. If you read Trump’s tweets on North Korea and China over the last few months, you will find multiple about-turns.
Senior officials in Trump’s cabinet have been far less effusive than the president in assessing the significance of Pakistan’s assistance in hostage rescue. James Mattis, the US Secretary of Defense, was quite cautious in expressing the hope that Pakistan’s cooperation was the “harbinger” of a new approach in Rawalpindi towards terrorism in the region. “We intend to work with Pakistan in a collaborative way in the future to stop terrorism and that includes kidnapping,” Mattis added. The US Homeland Secretary, Tom Bossert, welcomed the hostage rescue but insisted that “one action, though, does not constitute a reversal of a trend of unfortunate behaviour”.
While it is too early to jump to conclusions on where the Trump administration and Pakistan are headed, there is no denying the complex issues at hand in the US policy towards Pakistan. Many old South Asia hands in Washington have argued that Trump’s hardline posture towards Pakistan was neither desirable nor sustainable. Some in Washington believe that American concerns about nuclear stability in the region and the need for Rawalpindi’s support in America’s global war on terror tend to limit America’s coercive options towards Pakistan.
Others, however, insist that the full spectrum of possibilities for compelling Pakistan to change course on destabilising Afghanistan and India have not been tried out. On the face of it, the White House appears ready to use some stick to get Pakistan to see reason. It can indeed claim that pressure on Pakistan is beginning to work as the Pakistan army begins to reach out to Kabul and offers to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.
That there are major differences in Washington within the administration and in the larger strategic community on how to deal with Pakistan is not a secret. But few in Washington disagree with the proposition that frustration with Rawalpindi in both the executive and legislative branches of the US government has reached a peak. This does not mean the US is about to give up on Pakistan. As Secretary Mattis put it, Washington wants to give another chance to Rawalpindi.
The renewed negotiations between the two sides involves a number of imponderables. What kind of benchmarks is the US laying out for Pakistan on terror sanctuaries, the peace process in Afghanistan, and the anti-India terror groups? What are the rewards for Pakistan if it measures up fully or partially to the metrics set by Washington? What coercive measures should America unveil against Pakistan and when?
Trump’s August speech and Pakistan’s responses so far constitute only the first act in the unfolding US effort to recalibrate relations with Pakistan and Afghanistan. There is much more to follow. While the public mood in India might swing violently in response to Trump’s tweets, official Delhi must remain focused on the particulars of the diplomatic two-step between Washington and Rawalpindi.
Instead of prejudging the final outcome of the current round of jousting between Washington and Rawalpindi, Delhi must find ways to effectively intervene in the limited but inviting strategic space that is opening up between America, Pakistan and Afghanistan. India’s renewed economic assistance to Afghanistan constitutes one set of tools. Expanded military assistance is another.
At the end of National Security Adviser Ajit Doval’s visit to Kabul on Monday, a joint press release “welcomed the opportunities created by the new US strategy for bringing peace and security in Afghanistan”. Unlike the perennial pessimists in Delhi, the government seems quite alive to the new possibilities in the north-western marches of the Subcontinent opened up by the Trump administration. While US-Pak ties may yet return to a presumed default position, India has little to lose by playing on the front foot in the interim.