President Obama, according to Bob Woodward’s book “Obama’s Wars,” had said in a 2009 Oval Office meeting, that the cancer [of terrorism] was in Pakistan, and the United States needed to make sure that the “cancer doesn’t spread.” The Obama Administration, reports the New America Foundation, conducted 353 drones strikes in Pakistan that killed between 1,659 to 2,683 suspected militants. America under Obama could not succeed in obliterating Islamic terrorist groups in the Af-Pak region or punishing Pakistan for providing sanctuary to terrorists, including Osama bin Laden. “Newsweek“ reported that the United States had provided Pakistan approximately 20 billion dollars since 2001. But Obama was not tough enough to call out Pakistan in public for its double standards in the war against terrorism.
President Trump, while unveiling his new Afghanistan policy on Monday, finally said, “we can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe-havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond.” Trump is not known for keeping his words or being consistent in his position on any issue. Therefore, we are not sure how seriously his Monday’s speech should be taken both in America and Pakistan.
The United States insists that Pakistan must change its approach or face substantial cut in U.S. assistance. Washington has taken a harsh stand against Pakistan after having to squander much time in naively hoping that Islamabad would change its behavior and voluntarily end ties with violent organizations.
In The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014, the New York Times reporter Carlotta Gall argued that for the United States, Pakistan, not Afghanistan, had been the true enemy.
“Pakistan, supposedly an ally, has proved to be perfidious, driving the violence in Afghanistan for its own cynical, hegemonic reasons.”
Trump’s new Afghanistan policy was being eagerly awaited mainly for what it had to say about Pakistan’s role in the troubled region. His remarks on Pakistan are likely to be welcomed in at least three places.
First, Afghanistan has complained for years that Pakistan-based terrorist groups keep masterminding deadly attacks inside their country to destabilize Afghanistan. From President Hamid Karzai to Ashraf Ghani, all Afghan leaders have expressed frustration with Pakistan’s bullying attitude, support for the Jihadist networks and the presence of the Taliban’s Quetta Shura in Pakistan. The key Taliban leadership operating from Pakistan, and routinely plots horrific attacks inside Afghanistan.
Second, praised by Trump for its “important contributions to stability in Afghanistan,” India has also demanded action from Pakistan against the terrorist organization the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which was responsible for the Mumbai attacks of 2008.
To curb the Indian influence in Afghanistan, Pakistan has deployed the LeT and its affiliated charity organizations in Balochistan, the country’s largest province bordering Iran and Afghanistan. The LeT’s presence in Balochistan does not bode well for India, Afghanistan and the American troops in Afghanistan as it is going to provide a fertile ground for a new alliance for all kinds of violent Islamic groups. Even if Pakistan succeeds in containing India’s presence in Afghanistan, it won’t be able to stop growing cooperation between India and its other western neighbor i.e. Iran.
Additionally, the Islamic State (IS) has persistently asserted its might in the already volatile region through several suicide bombings that have targeted police officers, innocent civilians, lawyers, and soldiers. Instead of going after the Islamic State, Pakistan continues to deny its existence within its boundaries although the organization has claimed responsibility for numerous attacks it has conducted in Pakistan since last year.
Third, educated and progressive Pakistanis, who have been upset with their government’s support for radical groups, and continued financial assistance from the United States, seem delighted over this “paradigm shift in U.S. South Asia policy.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is correct in stating that Pakistan has suffered greatly from terrorism, a statement his Pakistani counterparts frequently make although with a twist. Pakistan selectively talks about the innocent citizens it has lost in the hands of the Taliban but refrains from telling the remaining part of the story as to why so many other such terrorist outfits still exist and operate without the slightest fear of government’s action.
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However, the officially stated fact that 35, 000 Pakistani citizens have been killed by Pakistan-based groups does not cancel out the other disturbing reality that Pakistan tolerates the “good Taliban.” The people of Pakistan have suffered enormously because of their government’s longstanding ties with and tolerance for Jihadist outfits. The people of Pakistan are forced to pay a heavy price for their government’s insane ambition to control and influence Afghanistan, and also contain India’s influence inside its western neighbor.
Pakistan, backed by China, has unsurprisingly pushed back on Trump’s speech by employing its victim and national honor cards and describing the United States as the usual “untrustworthy” and “selfish” ally that keeps ditching it each time after achieving its own regional goals. Yet, an end to Pakistan’s support for Jihadist groups is necessary for regional peace and stability. This can happen either through a progressive political movement within the country, which does not seem likely, or intense international pressure. As long as Pakistan’s foreign policy is defined by apologists who justify support for the Taliban and other Jihadist groups under different pretexts, the average Pakistani citizen will live under the fear of more terrorist attacks at public places.
Unfortunately, political parties in Pakistan live under tremendous fear of the powerful army. Even the liberal Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has gone an extra mile to please the military through supporting undemocratic military courts and issuing anti-American statements. The PPP, which should have guided Pakistan toward a progressive and secular path, is fighting for its own survival with the rise of another anti-U.S. leader, Imran Khan, of the Pakistan Justice Movement, who is often nicknamed as “Taliban Khan” for his apologetic pro-Taliban stance. The ouster of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif last month has further instilled the fear of the military among Pakistan’s political parties. It is this reason that Pakistanis have suddenly developed consensus on a foreign policy that refuses to acknowledge that supporting extremist groups was a dire mistake, and it has weakened the Pakistani state. Otherwise, on a usual day, it would be difficult to see the left-wing PPP and the right-wing PTI of Imran Khan on the same page.
The problem with Trump’s new strategy is the lack of a clear timeline. Today, the Af-Pak region is even more dangerous than it was before September 11, 2001. The Taliban and the Islamic State are increasing their presence in the area. They might temporarily seem competing against each other, but they will ultimately come together on a mutual agenda that aims to harm the United States.
Washington will not win the war by bombing Afghanistan as long as Pakistan continues to provide safe havens to America’s enemies. China, on its part, must also realize that it will be seriously risking its investment inside Pakistan by not persuading the latter to end ties with extremist groups. The Taliban have, more than once, kidnapped Chinese citizens in Pakistan, and such incidents are expected to increase as China expands its presence there. Thus, China’s interests rest in a peaceful and stable Pakistan that shows zero tolerance for terrorist groups. (For China, this should also include terrorist groups that aspire to attack India.)
Back in Washington, President Trump should not only warn Pakistan but must ask for a roadmap to clean its soil from Jihadist organizations that threaten the safety and security of the United States, Pakistan’s neighbors and, above all, the people of Pakistan. The Pakistanis pretend that the United States no longer has leverage over their country. That is not entirely accurate. Even the powerful military dictator General Musharraf, once threatened by the United States after 9/11, was compelled to appear on the national television and renounce Pakistan’s support for all kinds of extremist groups in 2001. Unfortunately, after some time, Musharraf too turned out to be a crook, and a secret admirer of the same terrorist outfits he had once promised to eliminate.
For Trump’s Afghanistan policy to succeed, it is critical to revisit and cure Pakistan’s forgotten cancer.