Written by Zoha Waseem.
How is President Donald Trump thinking about Pakistan? Analysts in Washington and Islamabad still appear perplexed. While there is much speculation, it can be argued that a major policy shift is unlikely; the agenda on Pakistan will continue being driven by three interconnected, security-related considerations: the Afghan conflict, nuclear arms race, and counterterrorism cooperation.
Firstly, we are likely to see a return to the ‘Af-Pak’ neologism that deals with Pakistan through the lens of the Afghan conflict and advocates hard-hitting practices rather than reconciliation. These practices will be determined, to an extent, by how Pakistan deals with the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network. Should Pakistan continue supporting these groups, which is likely, the United States will continue to perceive Pakistan as an unreliable partner that cannot safeguard American interests in South Asia.
Yasser Kureshi, a doctoral candidate at Brandeis University, believes that Trump is looking at Pakistan through a lens that relies heavily on the Indian perspective on Pakistan. If the US is to remain engaged in Afghanistan, it will need Pakistan’s cooperation. And if the stakeholders want peace in Afghanistan, there will need to be a power-sharing settlement between the Afghan government (supported by the US and India) and the Afghan Taliban (backed by Pakistan, China, Russia and Iran).
In the Afghan theatre, Trump is likely to continue with an approach inherited from Obama’s previous administration. Troops are likely to remain, if not supplemented; an Iraq-like scenario is one Trump will strive to avoid. Keeping troops in Afghanistan will also allow the US to watch Pakistan’s activities in its western neighbourhood, a practice that India will find comforting. ‘Unlike Obama in his early years, Trump does not see Pakistan as a key ally in its foreign policy’, says Kureshi. For Trump, that key trading partner and geo-strategic ally is India.
The Trump administration may prefer dealing with India and Pakistan independently of one another, thus avoiding direct involvement in the Indo-Pak nuclear arms race. Nevertheless, it is going to remain committed to India’s nuclear programme. The US is also working to get India into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which is a membership Pakistan is also vying for. If India is accepted into the NSG, she can block Pakistan’s entry. China, however, actively supports Pakistan’s nuclear programme and it is the country that can hinder India’s participation in the NSG. In the nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan, then, the US and China may not necessarily meet eye to eye. These dynamics are likely to strengthen the Pakistani military’s ties to China and deepen its mistrust towards India and the US.
What can further give the US a tough time with Pakistan is the relatively well-guarded Sino-Pakistan strategic relationship, against the backdrop of the growing power of China, which has contributed to America’s tilt towards India. While the US may not consider China’s economic ties with Pakistan as a threat (having previously expressed support for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor), Beijing’s strategic interests in Gwadar port to expand its naval presence and naval cooperation with Pakistan, might make both New Delhi and Washington uneasy. Nevertheless, India’s own trilateral arrangements with Iran and Afghanistan to develop the Chabahar port may be a factor that further makes Pakistan insecure about New Delhi’s projects in Afghanistan, thereby reinforcing narratives of Pakistan’s ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan, which can worsen relations with the US. While the Sino-Pak relationship is by no means unconditional, and Beijing remains sceptical about Pakistan’s support for Uighur militants, China has routinely stepped up for Pakistan. Nevertheless, internal turmoil resulting from a surge in violence within Pakistan will not bode well for the security of Chinese projects. Beijing will thus push the Pakistani military to keep the peace at home, a point upon which the US and China could agree.
Earlier this month, General John Nicholson’s statement before the US Senate Armed Services Committee, while discussing the importance of Afghanistan and Pakistan in the global ‘war on terror’, expressed concern over the growing presence of ISIS. The Islamic State’s Khorasan chapter in Afghanistan and its operational linkages with local militant groups (Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar) and defectors from the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban, have allowed these groups to routinely attack Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is a theatre that the Trump administration will need to observe closely and assist Pakistan in drafting its counterterrorism policies. It would be a mistake to neglect a region still vulnerable to emerging threats and new alliances on its militant landscape.
Over the last year, reports have cautioned that ISIS may focus more on Afghanistan-Pakistan as the potential epicentre for its agenda of global terrorism as it suffers militarily on the Syria-Iraq front; it is therefore likely to continue collaborating with local militant groups. This can increase the stakes for both Iran and Saudi Arabia in South Asia, linking it to their proxy wars in the Middle East. Countering extremism in Pakistan may thus be viewed through the lens of both South Asian and Middle Eastern geopolitics in the upcoming years.
Pakistan cannot afford to side-line either Iran or Saudi Arabia, the former being the state the US would hope to isolate further. On the one hand, Pakistan’s former chief of army staff is heading the Saudi-led military coalition against ISIS. On the other, Iran may assist Pakistan in the Afghan peace process due to its tilt towards the Afghan Taliban. Thus, Pakistan may not take dictation on how it chooses to manage relations with these two countries, and will continue playing a balancing act with both Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Pakistan will act as any rational actor, regardless of the threats of sanctions. Its civil-military establishments will not necessarily be deterred by the Trump administration. They will be pre-occupied by the upcoming elections (2018) and ongoing internal security operations; both priorities will be designed keeping Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan’s own geopolitical interests in mind. For this, it will need to maintain relations with key military allies, trading partners, and aid providers (including the US). It is unlikely to take measures that may result in regional or international isolation. On his part, Trump cannot afford to isolate Pakistan because of the Afghan War, Pakistan’s proximity to China and India, and its nuclear status, making it a critical player in South Asia’s geopolitical and geostrategic environment. Both regimes will need to cooperate, even if the relationship is likely to remain turbulent and conditional. At the moment it can be said that the political future of the US-Pak relationship remains predictably uncertain.