Expect specific action on Pak. this week, says U.S.
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Some specific actions on Pakistan, which is in the cross hairs of U.S. President Donald Trump for sheltering terrorists, could be expected in the next one or two days, the White House said on Tuesday.
Mr. Trump had criticised Pakistan in a harshly worded Twitter post on January 1, which several commentators in the U.S. fear could be counterproductive to America’s military operations in Afghanistan.
Multiple statements emerging from the Trump administration on Tuesday kept the pressure up on Pakistan, even as the President himself fired fresh Twitter salvoes against Iran, North Korea and Palestine.
U.S. Permanent Representative to United Nations Nikki Haley said Pakistan had “played a double game for years”. “They work with us at times, and they also harbour the terrorists that attack our troops in Afghanistan,Pakistan,” she said in New York.
“[O]ur goal is that we know that they can do more to stop terrorism, and we want them to do that. That seems pretty simple. In terms of specific actions, I think you’ll see some more details come out on that in the next 24 to 48 hours,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said during the daily briefing. “The President is simply following through on a commitment that he made, because this is a President that does what he says he’s going to do. We know that Pakistan can do more to fight terrorism, and we want them to step up and do that,” she said.
The administration has already withheld military aid of $255 million in August, which is technically still available to Pakistan, conditionally. That could be withdrawn entirely. A decision on $400 million in Coalition Support Fund — reimbursement of expenses to Pakistan related to Afghan war — for the year 2017 is also pending. This money could be given only if the administration certifies that Pakistan has taken adequate action against the Haqqani Network.
State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said Pakistan was “an important partner”. “We have a lot of issues in that region. Pakistan knows that, we all know that, and we try to work carefully together on some of those issues, but Pakistan — I don’t want to say that Pakistan can do more, but Pakistan knows what it needs to do.”
Continuation of Obama policy
Mr. Trump’s tweet does not indicate a shift in policy, as the previous Obama administration had come to same conclusion about Pakistan, while the undiplomatic rhetoric could backfire, said several experts who spoke to The Hindu.
“In actual terms, the policy does not appear to have substantially changed. In its final years, the (Barack) Obama administration followed through on cuts in military and economic aid when they were unsatisfied with the degree of cooperation coming from Islamabad, particularly in targeting militant organisations. This was meant to send a signal of divergent interests. The difference is that the current administration has amplified the signal with a sweeping incendiary statements and antagonistic rhetoric that is likely counterproductive,” said Sameer Lalwani, co-director of the South Asia Program at the Stimson Center
“The reality is that despite all the attention to this Trump tweet, he was largely saying things he’s already said before. So the tweet itself doesn’t represent much that’s new. That said, the tweet was clearly telegraphing the White House’s intention to suspend aid, and this is an administration that appears much more determined than its predecessor to follow through on threats to cut aid,” said Michael Kugelman, Asia Program Deputy Director at the Woodrow Wilson Center.
Alyssa Ayres, senior fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations believes that Pakistan is “actively choosing” to not acting against the Haqqani Network. Ms. Ayers, author of a new book on India’s rise, Our Time Has Come, said: “Pakistan historically reacts to any discussion of a paring back as some unjustified insult and evidence of U.S. lack of commitment to it. But I would say the opposite is true: after years and years of American patience and calls from Republicans and Democrats alike for Pakistan to take further action against all terrorists, not just a few select ones, to see a further step from the United States to pare back assistance should surprise no one. Pakistan is actively choosing not to act further on the Haqqanis, the LeT [Lashkar-e-Taiba], and others, and it cannot expect Americans to see this as the behaviour of an ally.”
Impact on Afghan situation
How will Mr. Trump’s approach affect the situation in Afghanistan? “If it doesn’t elicit enhanced cooperation and scuttles existing mechanisms of cooperation, it will undoubtedly hurt efforts in Afghanistan. But even if Pakistan did everything the U.S. asked, it’s highly uncertain this would yield stability in Afghanistan. Kabul is plagued by many more challenges of internal fissures, corruption, illegitimacy, and incompetence. Furthermore, the Taliban may not need Pakistan to generate combat power, so even if Pakistan managed to put the squeeze on some Taliban elements, they may foreclose on what little leverage they have left while being blamed for the Taliban continuing to threaten the Afghan state,” said Mr. Lalwani.
Mr. Kugelman believes “it’s too early to tell how this will affect the situation in Afghanistan”. “What I fear is that these U.S. pressure tactics could backfire in a big way, cause Pakistan to tighten, not ease, its embrace of Afghanistan-focused militants, and lead to even more violence in Afghanistan,” he said.
Pakistan has reacted strongly to Mr. Trump’s statement, and how it would respond further also remains an open question. “Past U.S. withholding of assistance has been matched by declines in cooperation and U.S.-Pakistan relations. Incendiary rhetoric will be matched in kind, especially during an election year. Pakistan has plenty of tools to respond to further U.S. coercive measures including closing the G-LOCS and A-LOCS [ground and air lines of communications], ratcheting up the temperature on the Afghan border, and reducing intelligence cooperation. If the U.S. escalates in kinetic terms with drone strikes outside the established zones, Pakistan can escalate in kind and attempt to shoot down some drones,” said Mr. Lalwani.
“The worst consequence is a decline in trust that makes recovery from a downturn much more difficult. A few days ago, CENTCOM commander General Voetel said that the U.S. was attempting quiet discussions rather than public messaging to Pakistan. The administration seems to have done a U-turn on this approach so trust in these quiet communication mechanisms will atrophy,” he said.
“In effect, if the U.S. pressure tactics work, and Pakistan backs off on its links to militants, then Afghanistan is a big winner. But if the pressure tactics fail, stability in Afghanistan could worsen, and the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan will grow even more complicated than it already is,” said Mr. Kugelman.